More is known about furniture in Egypt than anywhere else in the ancient world. By the New Kingdom, Egyptian furniture was highly prized and was often sent as tribute to the rulers of neighbouring countries. Fragments of Egyptian furniture have been excavated at sites around Western Asia.
Many Predynastic burials in the Nile valley have the body placed on wooden poles and covered with a matting made of plant fibre while some burials are found in primitive wooden boxes. By the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt we find bed frames were in common use with many examples being found in 1st dynasty (3100-2890 BC) tombs. The quality of these bed frames ranged from conveniently shaped branches that were lashed together, to sophisticated examples made from rounded poles that were jointed together and supported on finely carved bovine shaped legs.
At the beginning of the Old Kingdom, which opens with the 3rd dynasty (2686-2613BC), we see major advances in building and the associated trade of carpentry. The quality of royal furniture made during this period can be seen in those examples discovered by the American Egyptologist George Reisner, in the 4th dynasty tomb of Queen Hetepheres (c 2600 BC) at Giza. When he opened the tomb, he found that the wooden elements from which the furniture had been made had rotted away to powder. However, it proved possible to reconstruct much of the Queen's furniture by studying the positions of the gold sheaths, which had encased the furniture, and the inlays that had fallen free and lay on the tombs floor. Hetepheres' furniture consisted of two armchairs, bed frame, bed canopy, carrying chair and two boxes. What Reisner and his team achieved, from what appeared to be a pile of unrelated fragments of gold and faience, is remarkable for it has given us a small but superb collection of early furniture which rivals Tutankhamun's which was manufactured over a thousand years later.
We see the introduction of the wooden box at the end of the Old Kingdom. They were manufactured with flat, gable, barrel and shrine shaped lids. Some were very large and were designed with a pair of poles that enabled the box to be carried by a team of porters. In one tomb scene we see such a box being carried by fourteen men. During the Middle Kingdom we find boxes were customised to hold cosmetics. Many were designed like crates to hold small alabaster jars which held perfumed oils. Other boxes have been found to contain mirrors, kohl containers, combs and even a pair of slippers! A box made for Sithathoriunet (c 1800 BC) was decorated with gold fittings and bezels in which were set polished carnelian stones. Other elaborate boxes held jewellery, these were usually inlaid or veneered with sheets of ivory or exotic timbers bought from lands south of Egypt. Scribes even had boxes in which they stored their writing implements and palette. Their boxes were usually painted to imitate the stringing and veneered panels found on more ornate boxes.
Important directional changes in Middle Kingdom furniture can be seen by studying the large collection of stelae which are preserved in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. These Middle Kingdom stelae show that tables were widely used for the display of vases or holding water pots. Many are low with straight legs and have a single stretcher strung below the table top. We also see that Egyptian carpenters were constructing splay legged tables which had cavetto cornice mouldings below the edge of the table top. Slender vase stands were made from thin strips of timber braced with cross and angled struts. They were fitted with a shaped collar which held the round base of a single vase. They were covered with a gesso foundation before being painted to imitate carnelian and faience inlay. Those chairs made during the Middle Kingdom had either short backs over which was draped a cover or cushion or they had backs of full height. Such chair backs were curved and made from angled slats of timber. We see that they stood on slender gazelle-shaped legs. Often chairs were painted to simulate animal skin which were painted with a technique which resembles cow skin and was used on an arrow quiver case which is preserved in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
By the New Kingdom, the homes of officials and nobles would have been furnished with a wide range of furniture, the most common of which would have been the stool. Egyptians used a large number of different types of stool. The most commonly used were lattice stools that were made from thin struts of timber with angled braces supporting a double cove seat. Round legged stools appear in some of the more important Theban tombs. The majority of legs from these stools were hand rounded although there is a small corpus of material which have legs that appear to be turned ( see Research and News page ). During the New Kingdom we see carpenters sitting on three legged stools which allowed the stool to rest evenly on the workshop floor. The folding stool originates in the Middle Kingdom and was made from two interlocking frames with a leather seat. New Kingdom examples are more elaborate having the floor rails and crossing spindles finished with carved goose head terminals which are inlaid with ivory to imitate the eyes and neck feathers. We also see that lion legged stools and chairs were used in the homes of high ranking officials.
The furniture manufactured in the royal workshops were not very different in design to that used by the middle classes. However, they were exquisitely embellished with gold sheet, inlaid with coloured stones and faience or veneered with ebony and ivory. They were also adorned with the uraeus and the symbols of kingship. Other pieces are inlaid with thousands of slivers of coloured wood in either marquetry or parquetry patterns. In the tomb of Yuya and Tuyu (c 1400BC), the parents of Queen Tiy and the wife of Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC), was discovered a small armchair made for Princess Sitamun. The illustrious examples of furniture discovered in the Tomb of Tutankhamun ( 1336-1327 BC) ( see Furniture Preserved in Museums ) show the outstanding quality of design and construction achieved by 18th dynasty carpenters.
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© Geoffrey Killen 2003