Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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 things…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.
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.
Ancient Egyptian Tables & Chests
When Egyptians ate, they often held their food. When they wrote, they often used wooden boards placed in their laps. The Egyptians did have tables, but they were small and always low to the ground. However, one specific kind of Egyptian table stands out for its special purpose: gaming. Wealthy Egyptians loved games and played many kinds, including ancestral forms of checkers. Gaming tables were amongst the only items in Egypt to contain drawers, used for storing game pieces.
Aside from the gaming table, wealthy Egyptians might have a few small tables for holding lamps, oils, food, or other daily items as well. Simple tables appeared in Egypt since at least the Old Kingdom (3rd millennium BCE), but the basic structure of the Egyptian table changed little over time.
The last kind of furniture we expect to find in wealthy Egyptian homes or tombs were chests. Chests of various kinds seem to be amongst the oldest furniture items in Egyptian history, dating way back to the Predynastic Period (roughly 6,000-3,000 BCE). The oldest chests were fairly simple but over time became pretty sophisticated. Not only were they elaborately decorated with veneer, carving, and inlay, but examples exist of hinged and sliding lids with basic locks. Chests ranged in size from jewelry boxes to large trunks and were an important part of a civilization that helped teach the world what society could look like when people stayed in one place.
The ancient Egyptians built some amazing things. Pyramids. The Sphinx. Chairs. As one of the earliest settled societies in the world, Egypt was also amongst the first cultures to regularly build and use furniture. Generally, only the wealthiest could afford these items, since even basic materials like wood had to be imported. However, dry conditions in Egyptian tombs preserved many examples.
Almost all Egyptian furniture was low to the ground, and furniture legs were almost always carved with animal feet. Beds were slanted and covered in cushions or stuffed mattresses. Chairs were built like stools, with backs and armrests being hallmarks of extreme wealth or status. Egyptian tables were small and infrequent, although ancient Egyptians did seem to enjoy gaming tables, which were the only items to frequently be built with drawers. Chests were ornate and sophisticated, containing objects needed for daily life. These objects offer us an amazing glimpse into the past, back to a time when furniture was an incredible novelty and a symbol of a changing world.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack