Dead Old Inspiration

by | Aug 4, 2015 | 10 comments


Egyptian Dovetails

Cosmetic Box of Kemeni. ca. 1814–1805 B.C. Cedar, with ebony and ivory veneer and silver mounting. ‘Purchase, Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1926’. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

top of box

If I were taught about fire breathing dragons in science at school then they’d be as real to me as dinosaurs. They told me Pluto was a planet and I wasn’t going to question it. Our young minds can accept facts printed in a text book, but I realise how little of things we can really acknowledge or take an impression from unless they’re there, right in front of our face.

The Egyptians were always interesting in a ‘horrible history’ type of way. But it wasn’t until I started studying design that I began to get a real grasp of what extraordinary crafts people they were, and with regards to a timeline how absurdly advanced this was. This cosmetics box is 4000 years old, it’s better preserved than items 400 years old but that’s another matter. What I’m looking at is the intricate work and dovetails in the drawer front. Many people are aware that the Egyptians used dovetails but it’s easy to expect them to be primitive, large scale ‘mark I’ type joints – think of Medieval ones thousands of years later. It never ceases to amaze me the level of finesse that was actually achieved.

Ancient design has always fascinated me and I’ve been able to appreciate it even more of late since I’ve started cutting joints of my own. There’s a mystery in the works of these civilisations and it’s designs such as a simple box seen here that form the inspiration for nearly everything created since.

Richard has always been going backwards in his furniture making, and by backwards I mean headed towards primitive. When we met he was close to having flared sleeves and being a very modern ‘designer maker’. My hope is that he’ll de-evolve right back a few more thousand years so that we can have some nice ancient inspired furniture, and if I can’t twist his arm soon I might just have to commission something off him instead.

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Helen seeks to explore ways to live with greater joy & sustainability for both ourselves & the planet. Concepts which have led to the launch of her second business We Are Carbon. As the producer of our videos, Helen brings a unique perspective & injects life to our education ensuring it is both a pleasure to watch & easy to follow & learn from. Learn More About Helen & The English Woodworker.


  1. Paul Bouchard

    Wow, thanks for posting this. Coincidentally, I picked up a book on Tut’s tomb at a library sale and was thinking about copying one of the chests in it but haven’t found anything about construction anywhere on the web. Any other useful links or books?

  2. Micheal Kingsley

    Looks like there might be a story around the edges of the top. Yes, it IS amazing how much woodworking HASN’T changed. Carnauba Wax, Rotten Stone, Shellac. How far back do finishes like that go?

  3. stephen melhuish

    Dear Helen,
    what a wonderful piece to show, your comments are bang on the money.
    Regardless of era we should all learn from wherever we can and whatever we can, it’s a bit mind-blowing to see and consider that ancient civilizations were using dovetails and all manner of techniques that we still use today.
    I’ve always had a part of me that blinks away like a sea beacon sending out warning signals that kinda distrust modern and progression….not because i’m at all a lucite but because i wonder just how much we might be missing by changing the practices of the past for the practices of the modern.
    Modern should be scrutinised i believe until we take from it that which ultimately matters….this is just as important as scrutinising that which is ancient….the all harmonizing common denominator is design simplicity…..maybe a bit of common sense along the lines of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
    Woodworking is like any other area of design and skill we’re all forever tinkering about with it, however sometimes things stick and what works a thousand years ago still works now, great craftsmanship should be applauded regardless of the era in which it was made.
    Thanks for sharing this lovely piece….just magic
    My own rant is now over!

  4. thekiltedwoodworker

    How awesome that we get to learn and receive joy from a box that is 4,000 years old! THIS is why construction technique matters. We should build for our clients, yes, but we should also build for ourselves… AND for the guy 4,000 years down the road.

    The closing mechanism is interesting. I’ve always been interested in boxes that require something special to open. This is making some gears turn…

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Chris Buckingham

    I think that most people today assume the work of ancient times was very crude, it is mainly we few that actually still make things by hand that appreciate that the work produced hundreds/thousands of years ago was by no means crude, even though the tools they had were basic by todays standard, these people were masters of their trade, and the more that people look at their work, the more they will understand just how good they were, of course todays modern man would barely be able to differentiate the difference as they have rarely made anything.

  6. Mike O'Brien

    Hi Helen,
    I did a double take when you said the box was 4,000 years old as my mind had not seen B.C. and had reversed the 1814-1805 years. So I looked at it again as I was astounded to see the level of craftsmanship and wonderfully preserved condition of the box. Thank you for sharing this.
    Time for you to prepare Richard’s Mastodon stew for dinner most likely served with a spoon he carved from
    petrified wood. 🙂

  7. Polly Becton

    Evolve backwards? Hmmm. I always wanted my own cave man.

    But commission a bit of furniture? If he puts you to that, you might just have to make him “commission” something else in return.

  8. Dennis Heyza

    You give them way too much credit, Richard. According to ancient alien theorists, this case was actually made by a little green man from Alpha Centauri. Everone knows the Egyptians couldn’t possibly have built this box or the pyramids without extraterrestrial assistance [snicker].

  9. Glen C

    On top of all that, it’s a beautiful box, to boot!

  10. Sam Burdick

    I’m late to the party on this post… This past week I got an opportunity to see this very piece at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I have to say the experience was better in person than I could have hoped. I was able to take some passable photographs of it, other Egyptian furniture pieces as well as American Federal period pieces, colonial pieces right up through modern times. I’ve got several pictures that came out decently for being taken on a smart-phone camera.

    Highlights were this box and the game box next to it. A prayer block, housed in the bricks of a temple, that showed the precision of the Egyptian woodworkers. Several federal pieces that I was able to get close enough to photograph details without glass in front to spoil the image. And my favorite was a grand table and chair set done by the contemporary artisan George Nakashima. The chairs were particularly good and even showed touches of the hand work done by Mr. Nakashima.

    I’d be happy to forward some of the best images and a short explanation if you’re interested.



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