How the Ancient Egyptians Put Their Feet Up:
Furnishings in Ancient Egypt
by Ilene Springer
Youve seen the elaborately carved and curved, raised headrests the ancient Egyptians supposedly used as "pillows" on their beds. Did they really sleep on those through the night? Apparently so, according to archaeologists. But there is some evidence that they may have also covered the headrests with some soft material to make it more comfortable.
After the jewelry, some of the most exquisite objects remaining from the ancient Egyptian world is the furniture the people crafted and used. Chairs, beds, chests and stools were made not only for function but for beauty, as well, a beauty that reflected the philosophy of the ancient Egyptian mind of combining the best in human artistry while paying homage to the natural world. The perfect example? A chair made of cedar from Lebanon with inlaid ivory pieces in the shape of lotus blossoms on the back of the seat, with the legs of the chair ending in the paws of a lion. A chair fitting this description now sits in the British Museum; three thousand years ago it sat in the home of an Egyptian nobleman. Except for the reed seat, which has deteriorated, the chair looks as it did three millennia ago. Because most furniture was made from wood, which deteriorates over time, we dont have as many furniture objects as we do other antiquities, such as jewelry and items made of stone or metal which last. So much of our furniture information on ancient Egypt comes from paintings on funerary monuments, stela, coffins and tomb walls.
Out of Egypt
We tend to think of the Egyptians as being entirely self-sufficient, having everything they needed at their disposal for construction or artwork. But when it comes to furniture, it was a different story. "Woods of trees native to Egyptacacia, almond, fig, date and dom-palms, persea, poplar, sider, sycamore, tamarisk and willow," writes James Sibal for Egypt Revealed magazine, "tend to have knots, poor grain or poor strength."
So the Egyptians imported wood from other regions for their furniture. Ash, beech box, cedar elm, fir, lime maple, oak, pine, plum and yew came from Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, writes Sibal. From the south, the area known as Nubia, came African Blackwood and from Ethiopia came ebony. Carob was also imported. According to Sibal, Sneferu, founder of the 4th Dynasty, sent 40 ships to Lebanon to obtain its famous cedar wood.
The comfortable Egyptian home
Bed styles in ancient Egypt remained very much the same for over 2000 years. They are among the most intriguing of furniture items because of their structure. Many were slanted down at an incline from the headboard. A footboard ensured that the sleeper would not slip off in the middle of the night. Furniture makers also constructed side rails on many beds. Writes Sibal, ".almost all beds featured legs in the form of animal legs, ranging from heavy bulls legs to gazelle-like forms with hooves, and the feline type with paw and claw, frequently identified as lions legs." The mattress was usually made of wooden slats, plaited string, or reeds, which then held woolen cushions or some other soft material. Sheets were made of linen.
Then there is the question of the headrest. Perhaps not everyone used these as pillows, but some physiologists have pointed out the ergonomic benefits on the spine of sleeping with the head resting in this position.
The artwork displayed on the headboards, sides and footboards of the beds featured the animals and plants of the ancient Egyptian world, including papyrus and lotus blossoms and gazelles and cats. The most common feature in Egyptian homes was the stool, which was easily moved from place to place. And according to archaeologists, stools have lasted more than any other furniture items. Throughout Egyptian history, stools were made of a variety of materials and styleswood, wicker or leather; animal-legged with papyrus side rails, lattice worked stools, three-legged and squared-legged stools.
One stool that became very popular in the Middle Kingdom (2000-1630 B.C.E.) was the folding stool, which probably had its origins in the military as a portable camp stool. Because of the military association, the folding stool became a status symbol, says Sibal, and wealthy homes featured stools with elaborately inlaid decorations of graceful animal figures, such as ducks. Many Egyptologists believe that the high-back chairs often depicted in banquet scenes evolved from the stool through the addition of a increasingly higher back. The Egyptians enjoyed seat pads, mattresses and cushions that were often quite plush and stuffed with goose down or dried leaves.
Tables, another very common furniture piece in the Egyptian home, were often made of wood and stone, and sat quite low to the ground. Therefore, the ancient Egyptians must have stooped down at them for meals, game playing or writing or other activities. Most of the tables were small and portable and made for individual use. According to Sibal, there were other types of tables: There was the offering table that held food the ancient Egyptians symbolically gave to their deceased. The people also used displayed vases and other ceramics on these small tables. The large permanent dining table that seated several people is only a couple of centuries old in Egypt.
Finally, no ancient Egyptian home was complete without numerous chests, boxes and cabinets. They date from Predynastic times and were made of wood, reed or rush. The Egyptians used them for all sorts of reasonsto store linen and clothing; hold jewelry, cosmetics and mirrors and to house items that would be taken into the afterlife. Chest and box designs ranged from the simple to the complex, such as those chests covered with ornate inlays. By the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian craftsmen were making compartmentalized boxes with sliding lids and drawers. This eventually led to the development of cabinets with hinged doors.
Fit for a pharaoh
Experts who examine the furniture that has survived the past four thousand years find that "most techniques known to modern cabinetmakers were used by Egyptian woodworkers," writes Sibal. Caches of ancient Egyptian copper tools that were excavated at Sakkara and other places show that Egyptian tools were very similar to that of their modern counterparts.
The Egyptians were experts, as we well know from museum pieces, in marquetrydecorating furniture with inlays of wood or ivory. Royal or upper class furniture featured rare woods and elaborate inlays, such as a box from Tutankahamens tomb that is composed of an estimated 33,000 individual pieces of wooden inlay. Middle-class furniture was somewhat simpler in style and made from cheaper materials. Working class Egyptians had a full range of furniture that still had a sense of style but were made for more functional than esthetic use. Of course, very poor people might have only had mud brick benches, covered with mats, in their homes as their primary furniture.
But for those who could afford it, furniture in ancient Egypt was much more than something to use for physical comfort. It was, in addition, another outlet for artistic perfection and connection with the beauty of the natural world. In royal circles, furniture was so prized that it was often given as a diplomatic gifteither in individual pieces or whole suitesto rulers of foreign lands. Little did they know, these ancient Egyptian craftsmen, that their extreme skill would still be coveted four thousand years later.
Ilene Springer writes on ancient Egypt. She is a student of museum studies at Harvard University.