Yasser Metwally

My life…and the world

Ancient Egyptian furniture

ANCIENT EGYPTIAN 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.

Since the early Dynastic Period at least there existed beds with wooden frames on legs covered with strips of leather or cloth and white linen bed sheets. These frames were put together using tenons and mortices. No mattresses have been found, although pictures exist.

Head rest

Head rest

Like many other African peoples the Egyptians used headrests made of stone, ivory or wood, instead of pillows for sleeping on. It has been proposed that little cushions were placed on the headrests to soften them, but this conjecture is purely speculative. They were at times decorated with images of Bes and other gods, seemingly in an attempt to protect the sleeper from evil.
Headrests were connected with the rising sun and had therefore great symbolic importance. They often supported the heads of mummies or were placed in the tomb near the mummy and figure more prominently in graves than any other piece of everyday furniture.

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 tables 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.

Stools Guests sitting on stools

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:

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.

Chairs were known since the Early Dynastic Period at least. 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.

Wooden chair Chair, tomb of Tutankhamen

Chairs were used by important people, as is reflected by the hieroglyph (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 craftmanship was generally poor.

Armchairs, with or without cushions were reserved for the rich and powerful.

Armchair of Queen Hetepheres IV, (Source: Jon Bodsworth) Reconstructed armchair of Queen Hetepheres

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.

Alabaster box (Tulane University) Alabaster box

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.

Boxes were made of wood, ivory 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. Their construction could be quite sophisticated. From the Middle Kingdom we know of a box covered with veneer which had sliding lids.

Painted chest from the tomb of Tutankhamen; Source: Tulane University Chest from the tomb of Tutankhamen

Cupboards were not used in the home 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.

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

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).

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; Source: Tulane University website

Fresco patterns

Lamp; Tomb of Tutankhamen; Source: Tulane University website 9th dynasty pottery lamp Left: Stone lamp from the tomb of Tutankhamen, Right: Pottery lamp, 9th dynasty

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. Fat and, possibly, tallow were also used:

At times artisans and scholars must have continued working into the night, especially during the short days of winter; but mostly people went to bed when night fell and rose with the first light.

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

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 author

Professor Yasser Metwally

Visit my web site at: http://yassermetwally.com

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December 1, 2007 - Posted by | Ancient Egyptian panorama

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