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Suppose a wooden treasure chest is placed in an underground dungeon in a medieval European climate. The chest is as sturdily built as is practical, but isn't protected by any kind of magic or advanced technology.

In roleplaying games, wooden chests seem to last thousands of years without fail. But realistically, how long until the wood is rotten so badly that it can no longer functionally protect the contents of the chest?

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    $\begingroup$ European climate goes from south of Spain/Italy to north of Sweden. Can you be more specific? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Sep 4 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ Depends on what kind of wood the chest is made of, and on how it is made. There are hundreds of pieces of wooden furniture, including various types of chests, preserved from the Middle Ages. From the Renaissance we have many thousands of pieces of furniture. It also depends very much on the conditions in that underground dungeon -- it helps a lot if it is dry. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 4 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ A better question might be: How quickly do you want it to rot? If you set the circumstances the correct way, even without magic you could go from 5 years to a millennium or more depending on what you want. $\endgroup$ – Jacco van Dorp Sep 5 at 8:05
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    $\begingroup$ The treasure chess would likely be in the lord's living quarters, not in the dungeon. The lord would usually live on the top floor, with the soldiers living on the main floor - that way anyone trying to get to the lord has to go through his garrison. $\endgroup$ – ventsyv Sep 5 at 16:21
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"Realistically" is a pretty broad spectrum of interest for us here at Worldbuilding LLC.

The condition of a standard, non-living wood treasure chest over time is naturally affected by many factors, a few keys of which are the following:

  • The type of wood used: some woods are very soft and prone to rot no matter what while others are hard & dense and make for excellent structural strength over time while still others are naturally resistant to moisture & rot
  • The average micro climate of the donjon in question: some are prone to flooding or extreme humidity while others are relatively dry
  • The construction of the chest itself: is the wood properly cured and skillfully worked?; what materials are used, apart from wood, in the construction?; is the wood treated in any way?
  • Background or residual magic: apart from any protective ensorcellments, spells, charms or enchantments that may have been available at the time, the actions of various natural thaumic forces need to be taken into account
  • The presence and action of wee beasties: many kinds of insects love to eat wood and rodents are known to be ever on the lookout for an easy meal, even if that means gnawing through a two inch thick hard wood treasure chest to find it
  • Finally, the precise location of the treasure chest: is the chest sitting flush to walls and floor in some dank, earthy corner?; or is it resting in an elevated location on stony feet?

Realistically, a well wrought treasure chest, crafted of thick, high quality wood & metal such as brass or bronze, placed upon a rune engraven plinth having several integral feet upon which the chest may repose safe from rat, roach and termite, in a well ventilated & not overly damp donjon in a moderately calm thaumic climate withal, should last, barring the wanton destruction of Orcs and other assorted teenage male adventurers of the Mannish persuasion, for centuries.


Here's a wooden chest of the Saxon era:

enter image description here

For the terminally curious: a very interesting article on ancient wooden chests.

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    $\begingroup$ can you cite chest image? I want to read more about that sweet chest. $\endgroup$ – Willk Sep 4 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ That is a terrific answer, with some of the most bizarre spelling...to the point that there are about half a dozen words I can't even decipher. donjon = dungeon but some of the others? $\endgroup$ – Cyn Sep 4 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Willk --- Done. Quite a few old (really old!) chests have been unearthed from really quite damp places. I'm sure Tutankhamen's is probably the oldest and in best condition of the ancient chests listed in the article! $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Sep 4 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Cyn a donjon is actually not a dungeon though. $\endgroup$ – Orangesandlemons Sep 4 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ And of course if it's flooded in an anaerobic environment that'd be the perfect way of preservation. Nothing can get to it to start deteriorating the wood :) $\endgroup$ – jwenting Sep 5 at 3:40
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The oldest wooden chest I have seen is 4.700 years old. It is an ancient Egyptian chest which now resides in the Glyptoteket art museum in Copenhagen. I don't recall under which conditions it was found, but I imagine that similar conditions could exist in a European climate, though humidity is probably a greater problem in Europe than in Egypt. You wouldn't want too dry a climate, though, as I imagine this will dry the wood out and make it brittle.

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The biggest determinate is going to be ambient humidity. If the air is dry, they should last indefinitely. I have several of my grand parents, and great grandparents steamer trunks -- made from cheap plywood, I think, and covered in painted sheet metal. The latter makes them squirrel resistant. They are outside in an unheated shed. Some are over a century old, having come across in the great immigration wave in the early 1900's Our climate is hardly desert -- about 20 inches of precip per year, but only on rainy days do we get humidity over 70%

The second biggest determinate is the type of wood. Cedar and redwood last well, and are easy to work. Osage orange will outlast cedar 2:1 when used as fence posts, but getting good boards would be a challenge.

If price is no object there are tropical hardwoods used for dock piles that are very rot resistant. You also have to come up with a plausible way for that wood to get to your setting.

Wood treatment will have an effect: Now we use copper/arsenic compounds and can easily get 50 year buried in damp soil times for tree species that would otherwise rot in 5 years. Creosote is an earlier treatment, used for railroad ties and mine timbers. To maximize the penetration, submerge the boards in creosote oil, and heat until water in the wood begins to come off. Stop the heat, and the steam in the wood condenses, drawing the oil into the pores. Repeat several times. (This can be done with any preservative in liquid form) This leaves the outer part of the wood with little or no air in it, which means the fungi that do the rotting can only work on the surface.

Since the soil line is where most of the rot occurs in timbers (moisture and oxygen present) one trick used was to put a band of tar on the wood a foot above/below the soil line. Ideally applied hot so that it keys into the rough texture of the pole or post. So making your treasure box in whatever way you wish, then applying a coat of hot tar will not only keep the chest intact longer, but your Hero now has to find magic tar solvent to get into the box.

Sheathing the wood with sheet metal both discourages pests, and reduces wetting from casual spray. I suspect this is why steamer trunks are sheathed. However water that gets between the sheathing and the wood will tend to remain there for a long time.

Iron nails are a bad idea. Rust never sleeps. So to fasten your boards to one another some combination of dovetail joints and glued dowels I think would last longer.

Finally, for really long lasting chests, although brittle and unsuited for easily being moved, make them out of stone, or make them from fired porcelain

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The duration extremely depends on how exposed it is to the elements, how humid (or rainy) it is, how often it hits the freezing/thawing point during a year, if plant life is affecting it, and other such factors.

However as a reference point, this massive wooden building in Turkey has all but collapsed after about 60 years of neglect, and there's an effort to restore and maintain it.

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    $\begingroup$ Being "in an underground dungeon" constrains things somewhat (no elements, no freezing, no plant life) $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Sep 4 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime That's not necessarily true. It certainly wouldn't rain, and wind it unlikely to be an issue... however, flooding, general dampness, and fungi are all potential issues! $\endgroup$ – Arkenstein XII Sep 4 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ @ArkensteinXII I see you're unfamiliar with weasel words. Note the cunning language: "constrains things somewhat" does not define "things" or quantify "somewhat". I will point out that fungi ain't plants, though. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Sep 4 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime, a dungeon can be underground and still have a barred window which allows in the elements, plants and insects, etc. $\endgroup$ – Peter Taylor Sep 5 at 8:36
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    $\begingroup$ A wooden building doesn't seems like a good proxy for a chest, especially a particularly large building. Regardless of whether the underground dungeon does or does not have exposure to the elements, a building will clearly have greater exposure to the elements. It also has to handle much larger structural forces - a relatively slight weakening of an important member can cause catastrophic collapse, but a chest could rot halfway through and still protect its contents. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Sep 5 at 12:41

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