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p1029 Serra


[image ALT: An engraving depicting two naked cherubs, one of them standing on a high table and the other on the floor, using a two-man table saw; also figured, not to scale, are a detached saw blade, a pruning saw, and another handsaw.]

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p1029 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

SERRA, dim. SERRULA, (πρίων), a saw. It was made of iron (ferrea, Non. Marc. p223, ed. Merceri; de ferro lamina, Isid. Orig. XIX.19; Virg. Georg. I.143). The form of the larger saw used for cutting timber is seen in the annexed woodcut, which is taken from a miniature in the celebrated Dioscorides written at the beginning of the sixth century (Montfaucon, Pal. Graec. p203). It is of the kind which we call the frame-saw, because it is fixed in a rectangular frame. It was held by a workman (serrarius, Sen. Epist. 57) at each end. The line was used to mark the timber in order to guide the saw (Sen. Epist. 90); and its movement was facilitated by driving wedges with a hammer between the planks (tenues tabulae) or rafters (trabes) (Corippus, de Laud. Just. IV.45‑48). A similar representation of the use of the frame-saw is given in a painting found at Herculaneum, the operators being winged genii, as in this woodcut (Ant. d' Ercol. I tav. 34); but in a bas-relief published by Micali (Ital. av. il Dom. dei Rom. tav. 49) the two sawyers wear tunics girt round the waist like that of the ship-builder in the woodcut at p141. The woodcut here introduced also shows the blade of the saw detached from its frame, with a ring at each end for fixing it in the frame, and exhibited on a funereal monument published by Gruter. On each side of the last-mentioned figure is represented a hand-saw adapted to be used by a single person. That on the left is from the same funereal monument as the blade of the frame-saw: that on the right is the figure of an ancient Egyptian saw preserved in the British Museum. These saws (serrulae manubriatae) were used to divide the smaller objects. Some of them, called lupi, had a particular shape, by which they were adapted for amputating the branches of trees (Pallad. de Re Rust. I.43).

St. Jerome (in Is. xxxviii.27) seems clearly to allude to the circular saw, which was probably used, as at present, in cutting veneers (laminae praetenues, Plin. H. N. XVI.43 s84). We have also intimations of the use of the centre-bit, and we find that even in the time of Cicero (pro Cluent. 64) it was employed by thieves.

Pliny (H. N. XXXVI.22 s44) mentions the use of the saw in the ancient Belgium for cutting white building-stone: some of the oolitic and cretaceous rocks are still treated in the same manner both in that part of the continent and in the south of England. In this case Pliny must be understood to speak of a proper or toothed saw. The saw without teeth was then used, just as it is now, by the workers in marble, and the place of teeth was supplied, according to the hardness of the stone, either by emery or by various kinds of sand of inferior hardness (Plin. H. N. XXXVI. 6 s9). In this manner the ancient artificers were able to cut slabs of the hardest rocks, which consequently were adapted to receive the highest polish, such as granite, porphyry, lapis-lazuli, and amethyst [Mola; Paries.]

The saw is an instrument of high antiquity, its invention being attributed either to Daedalus (Plin. H. N. VII.56; Sen. Epist. 90), or to his nephew Perdix (Hygin. Fab. 274; Ovid, Met. VIII.246) [Circinus], also called Talos, who, having found the jaw of a serpent and divided a piece of wood with it, was led to imitate the teeth in iron (Diod. Sic. IV.76; Apollodor. III.15). In a bas-relief published by Winckelmann (Mon. Ined. II fig. 94), Daedalus is represented holding a saw approaching very closely in form to the Egyptian saw above delineated.


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Page updated: 16 Jul 08