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Building an Egyptian Jewelry Box

©️Paul Bouchard

This is a copy of an 11th Dynasty jewelry box in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As with other projects, I started by bringing the museum’s flat-on views into Procreate on my iPad. There I overlayed a grid scaled to the overall dimensions listed on the site, which then allowed me to work out the sizes and thicknesses of the component parts.

The sliding lids would be locked shut by tying the two knobs together with string. When placed into a tomb, it seems most boxes would have a clump of wax or clay packed over the string to form a seal. Like most locks, I suppose it was only intended to keep out “honest” people.

©️Paul Bouchard
©️Paul Bouchard
©️Paul Bouchard

Here’s a somewhat simplified exploded view of the main box.

From my efforts replicating the pinned corners, I believe the mitres were first glued and then a jig clamped tight to the sides for the drilling. Apart from the difficulty in getting a clean hole without a jig, it would explain why the the positions of the holes is so consistent from corner to corner. From what I’ve seen, perfect accuracy and dead even spacing weren’t things the average Egyptian woodworker obsessed over.

I made my jig with a half lap joint but any way you can get yourself a sturdy 90 degree corner will work. You just need to have one face square to the drill hole and room enough to get the chuck of your drill past your clamp.

©️Paul Bouchard

Ouch! You don’t want this to happen.

The stopped grooves can be marked, the space between repeatedly scored with a narrow chisel, then worked the opposite way to make those cuts deeper. Finish up with a wide chisel that you can drop into your initial gauge marks and pare down the sides. This technique can be adapted to make the tongues on the edges of the lids too. A lot of woodworking follows from this idea: make a light knife line, re-do it with a bit more pressure, use a heavier tool to do the main cutting and then follow your initial layout marks to finesse it to the final shape.

The last job was to replace the missing knobs, which I copied from similar boxes. Most examples look like they’ve been made without a lathe. The Egyptians would have had bow drills and wheels at the time the original was built but their use of lathes is harder to pin down. There are turned stone vessels from very early times but not much evidence for the use of lathes in furniture making until nearly two thousand years after this box was made. They generally scored and scraped decoration into rounded components (like stool legs) by hand. I think it makes sense to start with a rounded dowel shape and work into the surface with a saw, knife and sandpaper.

©️Paul Bouchard

The one thing I added to the design was some magnets on the undersides of the lids to keep them from sliding open when the box is handled.

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