Woodwork and its Importance in Human History
Updated: Aug 12, 2022
In the United States of America, we tend to take the idea of wood as a resource for granted. We are famous for wasting a lot of our resources because we have a lot of it. We have copious amounts of land and plenty of wood sitting on top of it. Americans generally are in the mindset of having plenty when it comes to wood. But that is not the case worldwide. In places like Japan, Jerusalem, and England, land mass or a viable environment for wood growth is scarce. So in these places, both the past and present, woodwork is less like a typical job and more like one that is not unlike a jeweler or artisan.
Woodworking, whether for practical or ornamental use, is practically a cornerstone of our civilization and tells the story of man. So, today, we are going to talk about the importance of woodwork in history.
The earliest documentable instance of wood carving date far back to the very origins of civilization. The Paleolithic era was a time when ancient ancestors began to carve sticks into sharp spears and other forms of weaponry. The spears were ideal for the purposes of hunting and gathering.
Then, we see a shift about 10,000 years ago in the Neolithic period. Tools made of wood were beneficial to aspiring farmers who wanted a way to harvest their newly growing crops. Also, some of these tools were useful for the purposes of animal domestication.
Once civilization got more complex, so did the woodwork. Trees were great for support beams when building a shelter out of clay. It was also a great medium for the earliest of artisans to depict religious deities. The oldest example of this is the Shigir Idol, an 11,000-year-old preserved sculpture found in Germany. There were intricate patterns in the surprisingly tall piece, as well as the depiction of several faces in this pseudo totem pole.
The use of wood and the art of woodwork got more complex, the more advanced civilizations became. This is evident in two kingdoms that grew large enough to establish their own unique ways of life. Ancient Egypt, and China.
China held wood in high regard as one of Earth’s natural elements. In fact, it was held in such high regard that it was considered a force meant to balance the very fabric of the world, along with earth, air, metal, water or fire.
Culturally, wood was the representation of growth, strength, generosity, cooperation, and altruism. Practically, its main use was architecture. Palaces, temples, furniture, and pagodas were all made mostly with rosewood, a resource, while not rare, was still considerably precious.
The carpenters that carve wood for the purposes of decorative architecture were extremely precise. They were masters of their trade making complex and ornate patterns to create depictions of mythical beings, important figures, or symbolism.
Three distinct architectural techniques for furniture go as far back as 2,000 CE:
But China wasn’t the only civilization to use wood to their advantage. In fact, Ancient Egypt contributed to a lot of woodworking techniques we use today.
They saw wood ideal enough to make furniture, but the use of wood as a resource was restricted to a small population who can afford it. Cedar importation was necessary for Ancient Egypt after the Nile went through deforestation.
This scarcity meant that they had to get creative with the wood enough to make it last and cover up mistakes. That lead to the invention of veneers, or flat wood paneling and varnish, a gloss made to stain the wood a certain color and to preserve it better against the elements.
When not used for practical tools, wood furniture was mainly in use for people of status. It was also in use for the construction of sarcophagi, decorative coffins that were supposed to serve as a pseudo-body for the dead and aid their journey into the afterlife. The more ornate they were, the more likely the dead would be able to make their journey to Paradise. Inscriptions are painstakingly written on each coffin, with prayers, blessings, and reminders of their past life. There were even nesting doll coffins, where one person could have multiple ones inside one another.
Woodworkers would definitely be experts in their craft and could make a lot of money from these coffin commissions.
Woodworking is not just an art. It is functional. It is something of value, no matter how old a civilization is. It reminds us of just how far humanity has come so far, and will forever be a tool in our arsenal.