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Ancient Egyptian raw materials: Wood
The timber, its uses, the craftsmen.

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Carpenters using an adze and a saw
Tomb of Nebamen and Ipuki
18th dynasty
Excerpt, original fullsized photograph by Thierry Benderitter [2]

Building a chair
Chair maker using bow-drill. Two adzes, a set-square, a hammer and a block of wood are lying on the ground before him.


The timber

    Egypt did not have any great forests nor many tall trees. Its native timber was mostly of low quality and could only be cut into short planks. Acacia [6], carob [7], juniper [8], doum palm, sycamore [10] and some other local wood were used, hardwoods like ebony were imported from eastern Africa [5], and cedar and pine from the Lebanon. The Palermo Stone records of Snefru's reign:
Bringing of 40 ships filled (with) cedar wood
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 146 <
Carpenter wielding an adze     The dependence on import for a raw material vital to trade, defense and some religious practices was one of the reasons for Egypt's involvement in the politics of Phoenicia. While the pressure of competition from other maritime nations was small, the traditional Egyptian way of sowing short planks together in order to build keelless vessels may have been sufficient, but from the middle of the third millennium onward, and certainly during the turbulent times of the later Bronze Age, Egypt imported significant amounts of cedar wood from Byblos to maintain its fleet. That they managed for centuries to build sizable seaworthy ships without keels points to the ingenuity and ability of Egyptian shipwrights.
    During the occupation of Syria under Thutmose III the Egyptians exploited the mountain forests to the fullest extent. Cedar (ash) was valued for its straightness, as was the red pine mer. They were used for the construction of a major fleet. Carob (sesnejem), and uwan (perhaps juniper) were also extensively cut. The Egyptian soldiers did the felling, the local rulers were in charge of transporting the timber to the coast.The importance the Egyptians attributed to timber [9] is reflected in the fact that its supply was one of the duties of the vizier:
It is he (i.e. the vizier) who dispatches to cut down trees according to the decision in the king's house
The Instruction of Rekhmire
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 697

Its uses

    The building industry did not use much wood, as houses were built of adobe bricks and temples and tombs of rock. Still, some wood was needed for roofs, second storey floors, shutters and doors, and the pillars supporting the ceiling were often trunks of palm trees.
    Furniture - beds, chairs, stools, tables, cabinets and chests - musical instruments, boardgames and toys were generally made of wood, and, when in the possession of the affluent, often with inlaid decorations and mostly painted.
    Vessels, originally rafts made of bundles of papyrus, were built of wood since the latter part of the fourth millennium and were at times of remarkable size. These great ships and barges were often constructed of Lebanese cedar wood, while the smaller boats were generally made of local timber.

Excerpt from a picture by Thierry Benderitter Carpenters
Excerpt from a photo by T. Benderitter [3]

    As a cheaper alternative to stone, tombs were at times built from wood, and so were coffins. Originally, these were simple boxes, but with the passage of time they began to receive painted decorations and their shape reflected that of the mummy buried inside them. Wood was also not infrequently used for other burial equipment such as statues or canopic jars.
    Chariots, both for war, hunt or travel were mostly built from wood, even the tyres, for which metal was never used, while the axles were covered with metal sleeves. Chariots were intricate artefacts, one list enumerates about fifty of its constituent parts.
    Sceptres and staffs, the insignia of dignitaries, were often decorated with carvings, as were their weapons of hunting and war. Wooden tools, on the other hand, were rarely embellished.
    Wood, turned into charcoal was needed for achieving high temperatures, critical in the manufacture of glass and the extraction of metals from ores. Firewood and charcoal figure in the donation lists of Ramses III, though at times it is difficult to know what the amounts listed mean, for instance for new feasts founded by the pharaoh the lists show
Fire wood 11500
gs-rA 2300
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 295

The craftsmen and their techniques

Every carpenter who bears the adze is wearier than a fieldhand. His field is his wood, his hoe is the axe. There is no end to his work, and he must labor excessively in his activity. At nighttime he still must light his lamp.

Carpenters' shop Model of a carpenters' workshop
Middle Kingdom
Photo courtesy G. Foley [1]

    Carpenters and cabinetmakers worked in groups and had a sophisticated array of tools. Axes and saws for cutting the trunks into planks, adzes for shaping, planing and shaving, awls and bow drills for boring holes, chisels and wooden mallets for shaping and cutting grooves. For lack of jaw-vices they tied the logs to be sawed in half to a pole sticking in the ground, smaller pieces of wood were clamped down with a hand or a foot while the other hand held the saw.
    Pieces of wood were joined by tenons [4] or dowels and glued together. Occasionally metal nails were used. Minor flaws were then shaved off with an adze or covered with gesso, the artefact was burnished and finally painted.

    The oldest piece of plywood was found in a third dynasty coffin, made of six layers of wood each 4 mm thick and held together by wooden pegs. [11] Like modern plywood the grain of its layers was arranged crosswise to give it added strength. [12] From 1750 BCE onwards this plywood technique became widespread. The thickness of the layers was reduced to less than three millimetres and they were stuck together with a glue made from bone, sinew and cartilage applied hot. [13]

Statue of Nakhti (Louvre, Paris),Source: 'Les Merveilles du Louvre', Edition Hachette-     Sculptors had a problem with the local wood as it very seldom yielded logs big enough for life-sized statues. They overcame this by joining a number of logs with wooden dowels. Wood became a popular material during the fifth dynasty.

Statue of Nakhti (Louvre, Paris)
12th dynasty
Source: Les Merveilles du Louvre, Edition Hachette

    This statue of the chancellor Nakhti dates to the end of the third millennium and is 1.75 metres tall. It was sculpted with an adze or a mallet and chisel, burnished and painted red.
    The production of weapons such as spears, clubs, maces and bows and musical instruments called for special woodworking techniques. Often the wood had to be straightened or, conversely, bent into a permanent arc. This was achieved by heating branches before peeling off their bark and inserting them, still hot, into the forklike top of a peg rammed firmly into the ground. With an additional lever the branches were then bent into the appropriate shape.


Picture sources:
[  ] Excerpt of carpenters using adze and saw: Thierry Benderitter [2]
[  ] Model carpenters shop: courtesy of G. Foley [1]
[  ] Excerpt of carpenters fashioning Djet pillars:Thierry Bendertitter [3]
[  ] Statue of Nakhti (Louvre, Paris) Les Merveilles du Louvre, Edition Hachette
[4] The earliest tenons were fixed, i.e. carved from one of the pieces of wood which were going to be joined. Later free tenons were introduced, where appropriate mortises were cut in both pieces of wood and they were joined together by the insertion of tenons. The tenons could be locked in place by drilling holes through them and the plank they were let in and fixing them with pegs. While tenons in furniture were quite often locked, they remained free in ships, enabling their easy disassembly (Cheryl Ward)
[5] An inscription of Puemre, architect of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III gives the following comment to a weighing scene:
Inspection of the weighing of great heaps of myrrh ////// ivory, ebony, electrum of Emu (amAw), all sweet woods
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 387
[6] Acacia wood, hard and durable, was used extensively in ship building
Acacia: tow boats, [canal (?)] boats, boats for the transportation of cattle, warships and kara boats
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 229
Acacia is found throughout eastern Africa, thus Weni sent to Nubia by Merenre could build the ships he needed:
His majesty sent me to dig five canals and to make three cargo boats and 4 [tow (?)] boats of acacia wood of Wawat
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 324
[7] Carob wood (the translation is not completely certain) was used for making furniture and other luxury items. Thutmose III's booty from his first campaign included
6 chairs of that foe of ivory, ebony and carob wood, wrought with gold, a staff of carob wood wrought with gold
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 436
Pliny was of the opinion that the carob tree did not grow in Egypt at all:
For this reason, committing a manifest error, some persons have called it (i.e. the carob tree) the Egyptian fig; it being the fact that this tree does not grow in Egypt, but in Syria and Ionia, in the vicinity, too, of Cnidos, and in the island of Rhodes.
Pliny the Elder: Natural History, Book XIII, Chapter 16
[8] Juniper wood was also appreciated as were the fragrant African woods:
They brought to me the choicest products of [///] consisting of cedar, juniper and of meru wood ////// all the good sweet woods of God's Land
Obelisk inscription by Thutmose III
J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 321
[9] Control over timber and thus ship construction was a vital contribution to the rise to unchallenged power by the early pharaohs, according to Cheryl Ward.
[10] Pliny the Elder called the sycamore the fig-tree of Alexandria. He described its timber as follows:
The wood, which is of a very peculiar nature, is reckoned among the most useful known. When cut down it is immediately plunged into standing water, such being the means employed for drying it. At first it sinks to the bottom, after which it begins to float, and in a certain length of time the additional moisture sucks it dry, which has the effect of penetrating and soaking all other kinds of wood. It is a sign that it is fit for use when it begins to float.
Pliny the Elder: Natural History, Book XIII, Chapter 14
[11] A. Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries, p.451
[12] John H. Taylor, Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt, British Museum, 2001,?p. 218
[13] Robert L. Patrick, J. Dean Minford, Treatise on Adhesion and Adhesives, CRC Press 1991, p.3.

-Carpenters and their tools
Index of Topics
Main Index and Search Page
Offsite links(Opening in a new window)
 These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites.
-Woodworking by Geoffrey Killen
-Dovetails in ancient Egypt
-[1] Photographs taken by G. Foley at the Egyptian Museum, among them a picture of a model carpenters workshop
-[2] La tombe de Nebamon et Ipouky by T. Benderitter
-[3] OsirisNet by T. Benderitter

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June 2006
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