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Discover The Wonders Of Egyptian Wood Carving

Mar 17, 2008
Wood is a perishable material and has not the same continuous history as stone. Ancient stone carvings are still unearthed; Greek bronzes are still being fished out of the sea. But wood will not survive neglect and must be specially cared for if it is to endure. There are many gaps - many civilizations which have no wood carvings to represent them.

The earliest sculptures that still exist are of bone and baked clay, stone and bronze, but there can be no doubt that prehistoric man carved wood - even if only for his axe-handles. He lived in the forests; fallen trees would be more plentiful than suitable pieces of stone.

But wood can only survive in favorable conditions, and so far as is yet known, Egypt is the only country where these have existed. Eleven wooden relief panels were found there in 1860, having been preserved by the drifting sands for over four thousand years, and they are believed to be the oldest in the world. They were discovered in the tomb of Pharaoh Hesy-Ra at Sakkara, and each measures about two feet by one foot six inches. The figure of the Pharaoh is portrayed in the typical Egyptian pose, finely drawn and sensitively carved.

The Egyptians went on using child-like conventions long after they could have dispensed with them. Egyptian art being entirely religious, the conviction was that all art-forms, like all the rites and ceremonies, had been laid down by the gods in ancient times, and could never be altered. There is nothing peculiarly Egyptian about this; right down to the present day, many religions have maintained a strict conservatism in form and ceremony.

The earliest three-dimensional wooden figures yet discovered date from 2500 B.C. Three were found at Sakkara, and the most famous of
Realistic portrait-heads for the statues were at all times considered essential. The sculptor was required to carve an 'imitation man' to be inhabited by the soul after death.

Wood was scarce in Egypt, and the acacia and sycamore, the only trees growing there suitable for carving, were so precious as to be considered sacred. In countries where there are forests, wood is sometimes used as a cheaper substitute for rare and precious materials.

Egypt had a different scale of values, judging by an observation in a letter from a minor king to a Pharaoh in 2000 B.C. 'In your country, gold is as common as dust . . .' Wood was used for royal statues as well as for less important figures, such as courtiers, officials, priests, scribes and architects. Relief panels were always in wood or limestone.

The wood carvings were placed in the elaborate tombs, where, it was believed, the Pharaoh would live on, so long as his embalmed body lay there undisturbed. He was surrounded by all the things he would need to take with him into the next life, and his servants were represented by little figures engaged in all kinds of farm and domestic work. Many of these are in wood, and some of the most remarkable are of women with long narrow figures and long skirts, walking upright and carrying baskets of offerings on their heads.

Wood was used for many purposes besides statues: for thrones, coffins and furniture of all kinds, and for the inner cores of metal statues. A figure was carved in wood and then covered with thin sheets of gold, copper or bronze, hammered on to its shape and fastened with nails. Every nation has found its way toward the craft of hollow casting in bronze by first using the wooden-core method.

After lasting almost continuously for over two thousand years, Egypt's power began to decline in about 1000 B.C., and was finally broken by a series of foreign conquests. But, although the long tradition of art also declined, nothing could subdue the strong, characteristic style of the Egyptians, and it was adopted by each conquering nation in turn - even the Greeks and the Romans. Only in A.D. 638 with the Arab conquest did the art of Egypt finally come to an end.
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