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Ancient Egyptian furniture: Beds and headrests, chairs and tables, baskets, chests, mats, lamps
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bed
Bed frame.
(Source: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago)

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Furniture

Household goods, Copy of  a wallpainting from the tomb of Ramose
Household goods

    Houses were mostly sparsely furnished. The majority of Egyptians did not have many belongings that had to be hidden away, so a chest or two or a few baskets would furnish plenty of storing space. Tables were rarely used. Even scribes, more affluent than the average Egyptian, did not write their scrolls sitting at a table, but generally squatted on the floor, holding a wooden board, on which the papyrus was spread, with one hand and writing with the other. Kitchen work was done crouching with the cooking utensils laid out on the floor. In many houses there would be a few low stools, but people often sat simply on the ground. And while the wealthy slept on beds, the poor had to make do with a mattress filled with straw or wool, a mat or even the plain floor.[8]
 
    Since the early Dynastic Period at least there existed beds with wooden frames on legs, onto which strips of leather or cloth were fastened. These frames were put together using tenons and mortises.[2] The legs, at first shaped like cattle legs and later more and more like lion paws, were of unequal length, the bed sloping slightly from head towards the foot end, where there often was a foot support. Beds were at times decorated with images of protective household deities such as Bes or Taweret.
    A number of bed frames have survived as have a few foldable camping beds; double beds are known from clay models and canopies from depictions.[21] The bedsteads were covered with white linen bed sheets. No mattresses have been found, although pictures of them exist. Head rest-
It is however good when beds are readied,
The masters' headrests safely secured;
    Biers looked very much like ordinary beds to the head of which a pair of sculpted lion heads were affixed.[21] The bed as place of procreation is depicted in bed scenes, e.g. in the tomb of Mereruka. Making the bed by covering it with the bed sheet and setting up the head rest symbolize the coming union. The deceased is referred to as "He of the made bed", while the woman being impregnated is "She of the head rest", i.e. they are identified with Osiris and Isis.[20]
    Like many other African peoples the Egyptians used headrests instead of pillows for sleeping on.[4] They were made of stone, pottery,[16] ivory or, most often, wood. It has been proposed that little cushions were placed on the headrests to soften them,[17] but this conjecture is purely speculative. The rests were at times decorated with images of Bes [15] and other gods, seemingly intended to protect the sleeper from evil at a time when he could not defend himself.
    Headrests were connected with the rising sun [14] and had therefore great symbolic significance. They often supported the heads of mummies or were placed in the tomb near or under the head of the mummy, at times in conjunction with a hypocephalus, and as symbols of rebirth they figure more prominently in graves than any other piece of everyday furniture.
Wooden Table, 1450 BCE; Source: Tulane University website
Three legged wooden table.
Around 1450 BCE
(Source: University of Tulane website)

Stools Guests sitting on stools
Tomb of Nakht
Excerpt. Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    There were tables, which were generally low and had four legs, though three and even one legged dining and gaming tables were known. These round xAwt-tables [11] were mostly made of wood, but a few stone tables have also been found and some were made of metal. Their use does not seem to have been widespread, apart from their being placed in tombs as offering tables.
    In funerary depictions these offering tables for the dead are laden with food. Pictures of feasting scenes show similar abundance; the rich liked to spread out their food on tables for all to see, though possibly not for all to enjoy:
At the table of one greater than you,
Take what he gives as it is set before you;
The Instruction of Ptahhotep, Middle Kingdom [19]

 
    Four-legged stools and collapsible stools with seats made from animal skins or woven with leather strips or plant material were provided for honoured guests, while simpler folk had to sit on pillows or mats spread on the floor.

Wooden chair-     Chairs were known since the Early Dynastic Period at least [1]. Sometimes they were covered with cloth or leather, were made of carved wood like this chair (on the right) from the tomb of Tutankhamen. They were much lower than today's chairs, with their seats sometimes only 25 cm high.

Chair, tomb of Tutankhamen
Cairo Museum
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    Chairs were used by important people, as is reflected by the hieroglyph determinative for dignitary (a man sitting on a chair), which was the determinative for "dignitary". In the households of common people it was generally only the master of the household who sat on a chair, if there were chairs at all. Among the better-off they might be painted to look like the ornate inlaid and carved chairs of the rich, but the craftsmanship was generally poor.

Armchair of Queen Hetepheres IV, (Source: Jon Bodsworth)     Armchairs, with or without cushions were reserved for the rich and powerful [9].

Reconstructed armchair of Queen Hetepheres
Cairo Museum
Excerpt. Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    Generally speaking, the higher ranked an individual was, the taller and more sumptuous was the chair he sat on and the greater the honour. On state occasions the pharaoh sat on a throne, often with a little footstool in front of it.

    The homes of the rich were well appointed. The furnishings of the house of Tabubu, daughter of the prophet of Bastet, in the story of Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah were luxurious:
Setne walked up the stairs of the house with Tabubu. He found the upper story of the house swept and adorned, its floor adorned with real lapis-lazuli and real turquoise. Many couches were in it, spread with royal linen, and many golden cups were on the table....Incense was put on the brazier; ointment was brought to him of the kind provided for Pharaoh.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 3, p. 134
Alabaster box (Tulane University)-

 

    The average Egyptian family did not have many possessions which were not in daily use, but the little there was had to be put away. Baskets were often used for this purpose. They may not have kept rodents at bay for long, but they were cheap to make and light to carry.

Alabaster box
Source: Tulane University website

    Boxes were made of wood, ivory [3] or the like. Being expensive items - more difficult to build and therefore costlier than baskets - they were made for the wealthy and were often elaborately decorated with drawings or inlays [5]. Their construction could be quite sophisticated. From the Middle Kingdom we know of a box covered with veneer which had sliding lids [6].
Chest
Chest found in Tutankhamen's tomb
    Cupboards were not used in the home Painted chest from the tomb of Tutankhamen; Source: Tulane University although the principle of the cupboard was known and applied in religious shrines. The rich kept their utensils and jewellery in storage chests made from alabaster, wood and other materials, sometimes painted or otherwise embellished, like the decorated chest from Tutankhamen's tomb on the right depicting the king riding in a chariot.

Chest from the tomb of Tutankhamen
Source: Tulane University website

    The lids of a few of these chests were hinged, but mostly the cover was completely removed when the chest was opened. Flanges or pegs glued to the lids and inserted into appropriate holes in the chests' walls kept them in place. In order to lock the chests strings were tied to knobs on the lid and chest and sealed with clay seals.

    Drawers were not unknown but not widely used. Gaming tables for instance might have little drawers for the counters.

 

Leg of a chest or chair; (Louvre, Paris), Source: 'Les Merveilles du Louvre', Librairie HachetteLeg of a stool, Source: 'Les Merveilles du Louvre', Librairie Hachette-

Left: Leg of a chest or chair
Source: Les Merveilles du Louvre, Librairie Hachette, excerpt
 
Right: Leg of a stool
Source: Les Merveilles du Louvre, Librairie Hachette, excerpt

    The legs of the furniture were often carved in the form of animal legs or the fore and hind-parts of some animal such as the lion. In the first dynasties these were generally legs and hooves of bulls (picture on the left). This bull's hoof is made of ivory and the pronounced muscles point to a Mesopotamian influence.
    From the III Dynasty onwards lion paws (and sometimes whole stylized lions) were more popular (see the stool leg on the right).

 

Fresco; Source: Tulane University website

 

    The walls were mostly just painted white or yellow, at times decorated with painted frescoes, or hung with ornamental textiles or mats. Along with baskets and rope, these were made from flax, papyrus, palm fibre or grass.

Fresco patterns
Source: University of Tulane website

Lamp; Tomb of Tutankhamen; Source: Tulane University website9th dynasty pottery lamp-

Left: Stone lamp from the tomb of Tutankhamen
Source: Tulane university website
 
Right: Pottery lamp, 9th dynasty
Source: Petrie Museum website [7]

    There were lamps for lighting the dark, generally shallow pottery containers filled with oil in which a wick was floating. Olive oil or the smellier oil of the kiki, the castor berry, was used [13]. Fat and, possibly, tallow were also used:
The god gives the lamp and the fat according to the heart.
Papyrus Insinger, Ptolemaic Period
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian literature, Vol. 3, p.209
    At times artisans and scholars must have continued working into the night [12], especially during the short days of winter; but mostly people went to bed when night fell and rose with the first light.
    But on special occasions the whole country was lit up:
... now the lamps are saucers full of salt and oil mixed, and the wick floats by itself on the surface, and this burns during the whole night; and to the festival is given the name Lychnocaia (the lighting of lamps).
Herodotus, Histories, part II
The wicks were made of linen and the salt was seemingly added to prevent the lamps from smoking.
Toilet stool from the grave of Kha, Source: 'Pharaos Volk' by T.G.H.James  
Drawing of a toilet stool from the grave of Kha
Source: T. G. H. James Pharaos Volk

 
    The less wealthy who could not afford to have a limestone toilet built, made do with a toilet stool, under which a ceramic bowl was placed. Despite of what Herodotus wrote, most people probably relieved themselves outdoors, though.

 


[  ] The ancient Egypt pages of the University of Tulane website where the originals of many of these pictures could be found, has unfortunately been discontinued.
 
Footnotes:
[8] In the world of chaos described in the Admonitions of Ipuwer the formerly rich had to bed down on the Sdw of the poor about which M. Lichtheim wrote: Sdw is an object on which one can lie down and on which a load can be placed; hence "board" seems to me more suitable than "raft."
Those who were on their husbands' beds,
"Let them lie on boards," [one repeats].
The Admonitions of Ipuwer
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.153
Back
[9] Placing somebody in an armchair was a great honour. In the tale Truth and Falsehood, Truth's son, after growing up, found his father, honoured him by offering him a seat, food and drink, and decided to take revenge on Falsehood who had caused Truth to be blinded.
The youth brought his father inside; made him sit on an armchair; placed a footrest under his feet; and put food before him
Truth and Falsehood
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.212
The armchair was seemingly rather tall as a footstool was needed. It also appears that the food had to be placed on a table to be easily accessible to the person sitting in the armchair.
Back
[11] A few words concerning transliteration and pronunciation of ancient Egyptian.
[12] cf. The Instructions of Dua-Khety
[13] Most Mediterranean peoples used olive oil for illumination. Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) reports:
Instead of lamp-oil they (i.e. the Egyptians) pour the juice of a plant which is called kiki into the lamps.
Diodorus Siculus Historical Library, Vol.1, Chapter 33
After a German translation by Julius Friedrich Wurm
[14] Altenmüller 2001, p.64
[15] cf. e.g. UC16065 on the Petrie Museum web site: New Kingdom wooden head-rest with figures of Bes holding serpents on its base.
[16] cf. e.g. UC8612 on the Petrie Museum web site: Old Kingdom pottery headrest
[17] Szpakowska 2007 p.164
[18] Lichtheim 1973, p.160
[19] Lichtheim 1973, p.65
[20] Hartwig Altenmüller, Die Fahrt der Hathor nach Edfu und die "Heilige Hochzeit" in Clarysse & Quaegebeur 1998, p.762
[21] Lexikon der Ägyptologie, vol. I, 767f.
 
Bibliography:
Hartwig Altenmüller, Studien zur altagyptischen Kultur BD.29. Buske, 2001
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, 1973
Kasia Szpakowska, Daily Life in Ancient Egypt: Recreating Lahun, Blackwell Pubý2007
Willy Clarysse, Jan Quaegebeur, Egyptian religion: the last thousand years, Part 1, Peeters Publishers, 1998

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Links(Open a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites
 

Second dynasty stela showing chair[1] Second dynasty stela showing chair (University College London)
End of early dynastic bedframe[2] End of early dynastic bed frame (University College London)
Upper part of a cylindrical ivory box[3] Upper part of a cylindrical ivory box (University College London)
Headrests[4] Headrests (University College London)
Ivory inlays[5] Ivory inlays (University College London)
Box covered with veneer[6] Box covered with veneer (University College London)
Brown ware pottery lamp[7] Brown ware pottery lamp (University College London)
Tutankhamun's FurnitureAkhet Egyptology: Tutankhamun's Furniture
Furniture in EgyptFurniture in Egypt (University College London)
Ancient Egyptian FurnitureAncient Egyptian Furniture
 

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