Ancient Egyptian Furniture: History & Design

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The ancient civilization of Egypt set many precedents that would be followed by settled peoples around the Mediterranean for centuries. One that we don't always talk about is furniture, a topic we'll explore in this lesson.

Ancient Egyptian Furniture

The ancient Egyptians were amongst the first truly complex settled civilizations in the world. This meant that they were amongst the first to make a lot of thingsā€¦like furniture. Think about it: Nomadic civilizations don't tend to carry around lots of extra stuff. The Egyptians built permanent homes and found new ways to fill their lives with both useful and decorative items.

What's remarkable about ancient Egyptian furniture isn't just that it existed, but also that we know about it. Most furniture was made of decomposable materials, like wood or reeds, but much has survived thanks to the extremely dry climate. Since the Egyptians believed the dead needed items from their daily lives, furniture was included in tombs, preserved by the same conditions that helped mummify their dead. We don't always talk about the importance of furniture, but it's an amazing part of history as civilizations learned how to stay put.

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  • 0:03 Ancient Egyptian Furniture
  • 1:00 Rich Versus Poor Egyptians
  • 1:58 Ancient Egyptian Beds & Chairs
  • 3:47 Ancient Egyptian…
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Rich Versus Poor Egyptians

Before we talk about furniture itself, we need to talk about who owned it. Egypt was strongly hierarchical, with a divine ruling class, a wealthy class of administrators, and a whole bunch of working poor. Furniture was essentially a novelty at the time in history, so poorer Egyptians did pretty much everything on the ground. They sat on the ground, ate on the ground, and slept on the ground, using woven reed or straw mats and blankets for comfort and storing their few belongings in woven baskets. What we'll be talking about today took money to create, so it was almost exclusively the property of the rich.

Why was furniture so expensive? Basically, it was the materials. Think about this: how many forests does Egypt have? Even basic furniture needed wood, which had to be imported into this desert culture. Overall, furniture was a symbol of wealth because it was a symbol of Egyptian power and international connections.

Ancient Egyptian Beds & Chairs

Wealthy Egyptians, like most of you, woke up in a bed. Beds were made of wood, often slanted or curved so that the sleeper wouldn't slide off. Egyptians slept with their heads on a headrest, which was often softened by cushions. Mattresses were stuffed with reeds or straw and sat on the wooden frame. Beds seem to have been pretty important to Egyptians, and in fact, these items stayed stylistically consistent for roughly 2,000 years, barely changing at all.

Egyptian beds were often carved with images of deities who protected households. The headboard itself might have symbols relating to the rising sun, including the deities associated with this daily phenomenon. Some other characteristics of Egyptian beds are also definitive of traits found in all Egyptian furniture. They were low to the ground and almost always had four legs carved with animal feet.

From their bed, wealthy Egyptians woke up to a full day of planning, studying, or overseeing their workers. So, they needed chairs. Egyptian chairs were essentially stools, a basic design maintained throughout nearly all of Egyptian history, with variations in style over time. For example, in the Middle Kingdom (roughly 2030-1640 BCE), folding stools became very popular symbols of status. In general, poor Egyptians could afford a basic stool and the wealthy could purchase decorated folding stools, but only the wealthiest could buy chairs with backs and armrests. While most chairs were still low to the ground, a taller chair indicated status and importance. The pharaoh's throne was tall enough to have a footstool placed in front of it. Yeah, be impressed.

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