Hammurabi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Code of Hammurabi (2250 BCE) was a set of 282 laws decreed by Hammurabi, the King of Babylon, who ruled from in or about 1796 BC to 1750 BC). The laws were inscribed in stone and set out in forty-nine columns on an over 7 ft stele.  

The Code of Hammurabi is one of the earliest laws on record that provided for the regulation of aritisans.   Section 189 of the Code provides:

“If an artisan has undertaken to rear an [adopted] child and teaches him his craft, he cannot be demanded back [by his biological parents]”.

Sections 228 to 233 of the Code addressed house builders: 

“228. If a builder builds a house for someone and completes it, he shall give him a fee of two shekels in money for each sar of surface.

229 If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.

230. If it kills the son of the owner, the son of that builder shall be put to death.

231. If it kills a slave of the owner, then he shall pay slave for slave to the owner of the house.

232. If it ruins goods, he shall make compensation for all that has been ruined, and inasmuch as he did not construct properly this house which he built and it fell, he shall reerect the house from his own means.

 233. If a builder builds a house for someone, even though he has not yet completed it; if then the walls seem toppling, the builder must make the walls solid from his own means.

The apprentice however, as in all times, must still have had a difficult path to follow.  Not just any man could aspire to become a master carpenter.   While a young apprentice could never challenge his master (considering the penalties), a master could inflict severe verbal and corporal punishment upon his vassal.

Not only would the young woodworker have to be physically able to perform the heavy and mundane tasks required by his master, but he would also be expected to accomplish these things with a certain amount of speed and agility.  Aside from the physical, various abstract qualities would need to be learned concerning measurement, proportion, geometry, prices, commerce, and the calculation of material quantities required for the job.  Algebra and geometry were well known to the ancient Mesopotamians, with “Pythagorean Theorem” being employed there at least a thousand years before Pythagoras himself.  Standard measurements and spacings were counted in ‘reeds’, ‘cubits’, and ‘fingers’.  These human-scale measurements worked for the carpenter of all cultures up to recent times when the unwelcome intrusion of the industrial-based metric scale caused much friction. 

Knowledge of proper angles was necessary, not only for carpentry, but also for sharpening the desired cutting edge on axes, saws, and chisels.  Sharpening was surely a monotonous daily task for the apprentice, considering the lesser-quality metal tools of the time.  This job, like so many others in the trade then and now, while repetitive and tiring, would take concentration and a certain positive attitude.  Mundane tasks are essential to the craft and can only be accomplished if the trainee has an eye on the ‘big picture’, both in terms of the larger immediate project and his future career.