Little Wooden Boxes

Ink well, New Kingdom, Egypt. H-4.5 cm x L-12.2 cm x D-5.6 cm (1-3/4″ x 4-13/16″ x 2-3/16″). British Museum.

I like to study the everday objects on display in museums and my favorites are the small boxes and containers used to hold all manner of things: keepsakes, love letters, poison, cosmetics and so on.

In ancient Egypt many of the little boxes recovered from tombs were used to hold various cosmetic pastes used by women and men (aka guyliner).

Duck box, New Kingdom, Egypt. H-9.5 cm x D-9 cm x W-15 cm (3-3/4″ x 3-7/16″ x 6″). British Museum.

Boxes were often carved into animal forms with decorated swivel tops secured with wooden pins. The incised wings of this duck-shaped box swing out to reveal the interior.

Plant life was also an inspiration for the shape of these boxes.

Cucumber box, New Kingdom, Egypt. British Museum.

The cucumber still has green pigment in the grooves providing another detail on the amount of work that went into these boxes. The dimensions are: H-3.5 cm x D-7 cm x W-3.5 cm (1-3/8″ x 6.9″ x 1-3/8″).

Middle Kingdom, Egypt. MetMuseum.

Not all the boxes were carved or extremely small. This joined box has a sliding lid and is one of the larger ancient Egyptian boxes in this line-up. The interior has three holders probably for glass vials. The dimensions are: H-18 cm x L-24.5 cm x W-15.5 cm (7-1/16″ x 9-5/8″ x 6-1/8″).

As noted above the boxes from Ancient Egypt were found in tombs and were made to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. They were also items of luxury made of imported woods, ivory and faience.

Round cosmetic boxes, New Kingdom, Egypt. MetMuesum.

Two boxes of similar design: wood on the left, ivory on the on the right. Both with pinned swivel lids and compass-incised designs. The dimensions of the wooden box, including the tabs, are: H-5 cm x W-12.2 cm, base diameter-4.8 cm (1-15/16″ x 4-13/16 cm, base diameter 1-7/8″).

Duck box, all sides, New Kingdom, Egypt. British Museum.

The last box before springing into not-as-ancient times is titled the Trussed Duck. I prefer Resting Duck. It is an extraordinary shape. If I were to order a duck box to hold my mascara, or rather kohl, I would not think to order it in the shape of an entree for dinner. For such a small package it has incredible detail. Dimensions are: L-10.8 cm x W-5 cm (4-1/4″ x 2″).

Greco-Roman or possibly Coptic, Egypt. British Museum.

Another joined (and very petite) box with a sliding lid. Dimensions are: H-5.5 cm x D-4cm x W-4.5 cm (2-3/8″ x 1-9/16″ x 1-1/2″).

Turtle box, 7th-century, Thebes. MetMuseum.

The Met Museum does not identify this as a turtle box, but that is what it is. The box is carved with both top and sides incised. Here again, the lid swivels to the side but we have the addition of  the turtle’s head acting as the closing mechanism. Dimensions are: H-5.4 cm x W-14.9 cm x D-7.3 cm (2-1/8″ x 5-7/8″ x 2-7/8″).

If, like Chris, you might have inadvertently squashed a brother turtle on the roadway you should probably make this turtle box.

Kerala salt box.

Moving on to India and a very traditional box for the kitchen. Although the box is not dated it is likely 19th- or 20th-century. The box is carved in the shape of a leaf and the pin for the swivel lid is topped with a bud.

Masala-dabba spice box.

Another box for the kitchen from India, dated 20th-century. The interior is divided to separate the various spices used on a daily basis in Indian cuisine. I’m telling you, that swivel lid has worked for thousands of years.

Birchbark and cedar box, 19th-century. MetMuseum.

This is a Micmac box from Ontario, Canada with etched birchbark sides and cedar base and lid. The bark is sewn with reeds. The Micmac are an Algonquin-speaking people.

Nutmeg box, 19th-century, English. Opus Antiques.

Keeping a pocket-sized nutmeg box was the thing to have in the 19th century. A small dusting of nutmeg was added to any dish needing just a bit of spicey sweetness. One nutmeg was stored in the bottom section, the grater was the middle portion, then the top went on. Some people (my mother) sneak nutmeg into a dish (eggplant parmigiana) and then laugh when others (me) can’t figure out why my dish tastes different. The dimensions are (the box, not my mother): L-7 cm, diameter at top-2.5 cm (2-3/4″, top diameter-1″).

From Denzil Grant Antiques.

Whomever made this pallet for the artist was a very good friend indeed.

Earlier in the year I wrote about a 2,400-year-old heart-shaped box recovered from a shipwreck. One of the archaeologist involved in the research figured out how the box was made. You can read about it here.

Suzanne Ellison

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9 Responses to Little Wooden Boxes

  1. nrhiller says:

    You had me at “keepsakes, love letters, poison…” Great bit of subtle humor there!

  2. Eric R says:

    Another great post Suzanne.
    Thank you.

  3. Nutmeg can turn a mushroom and brie cheese omelette into a fabulous meal – it is already great (grate!) without the nutmeg.

  4. These boxes are so cute!

  5. Mark Baker says:

    I never can read enough about these Tupperware of the ancient world !

  6. durbien says:

    Hey! Wait! I got a new complaint!

    Forever in debt to your priceless advice..

  7. hikerob says:

    We humans have loved little boxes for centuries.

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