The History, People and Culture of the Nile Valley
Ancient Egypt Magazine
Volume 8 issue 6 June 2008
Per Mesut - for younger readers
Are you sitting comfortably?
On my recent visit to the Tutankhamun exhibition in London some surprising items really impressed me: the almost perfect chair and footstool, probably made for the King when he was a child; the grander chair given by Princess Sitamun to the funeral of her grandparents; the ‘folding’ stool with a seat painted to look like cowhide.
Then I started to wonder why Tutankhamun in particular had been provided with so many different things to sit on, from plain stools to his magnificent golden throne.
Most ordinary Egyptians spent a lot of time sitting on the ground. Scribes (such as the one shown in the photo. above, which is of a statue in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo) are usually shown sitting cross-legged, and kitchen workers or craftsmen in their workshops are seen kneeling or sitting with their knees drawn up as in the hieroglyphs for ‘man’ and ‘woman’. But in tomb paintings and reliefs, a wide variety of furniture is depicted, and in museums you can see many types of seating, simple or elaborate.
It seems that the richer or more important a person was the better the quality and the higher the seat of the chair they sat upon.
Children and women were commonly shown kneeling or sitting at a lower level beside their parents or husbands. In the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford you can see the famous wall-painting from Amarna in which two little princesses are portrayed, as is their mother, Queen Nefertiti, sitting on multicoloured cushions on the floor. The beautiful gilded wooden shrine which, for me, was the real highlight of the Tutankhamun exhibition, is covered with scenes of the king and queen. For example, Ankhesenamun sits at her husband’s feet on a patterned cushion while Tutankhamun is seated on a folding stool, also provided with a cushion for some extra comfort.
These stools, easily stored and transported, usually had seats formed from leather straps. The example above is from Tutankhamun’s tomb, and in this instance has a solid seat. You can see the makers have even shown the legs and tail of the imitiation animal skin. In this case the stool legs are decorated with duck heads.
Fixed-leg stools were common in all homes from the simplest village house to the royal palace and had seats of wooden slats, woven cords, leather thongs or rushwork. Tripod or three-legged stools, like the one in the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh, or those from the Deir el Medina tomb of Kha and Merit, displayed in Turin, frequently appear in workshop scenes such as those in the tomb of Rekhmira. In the tomb of stools, both three- and four-legged, as they wait to have their hair cut.
Three legs are ideal if the stool is likely to be used on uneven ground, as four legs would cause the stool to wobble. In the photo. above, you can see a three- and a four-legged stool from Tutankhamun’s tomb, as well as a small chair.
The cheapest stools were made on reed frameworks with seats woven from rushes, just like modern bamboo and wickerwork furniture. There is an elaborate and sturdy example now in the Luxor Museum.
The better sort of stool, made from wood, often had a concave seat, rising to what looks like a very inconvenient point at each corner. To sit comfortably on this sort of stool required a good, thick cushion pad, as you can see in many scenes on Tutankhamun’s golden shrine. The feet of these seats, as with other furniture, were carved like the legs of an animal, usually a lion or a bull, with a clear difference between front and back legs.
Images of seated gods or kings, like the giant statues of Rameses II at Abu Simbel, include a very simple throne. This is a square block, apparently solid, sometimes with a low bar or backrest, and draped with a cloth or skin of some sort. Such a throne would have been very uncomfortable and it is possible that it only existed in the imagination of Egyptian artists. You can see such a throne shown in the photo. on the right, which is a statue of King Amenhotep III, now in the British Museum.
In seated statues of ordinary people, though the solid shape is basically the same, the sculptor often carved the profile of the chair, complete with animal legs and feet, on the sides of the block. The quality of the chair shown indicated the status of the person portrayed in the statue.
The head of the family would have his own chair set on a low platform in the main room of his house. An example of a low chair caN now be seenin the British Museum. Higher chairs often needed a footrest to allow the owner to sit upright and to look impressive.
Royal footrests were often painted or inlaid with the figures of foreigners or the nine bows, which represented Egypt’s traditional enemies. One of Tutankhamun’s footrests was a cushion decorated with a beadwork design of bound captives enabling the king to keep his foes firmly beneath his feet. The photo. above shows a chair Tutankhamun used when he was still a child, and a simple wooden footrest.
Ordinary household chairs were much the same as were to be found in any English farmhouse kitchen until fairly recently. Made of plain wood with square-cut legs, slatted backs and woven seats, these practical pieces of furniture needed only a coat of whitewash to cover the variable quality of the timber. Many of the chairs in the Tutankhamun exhibit, like most Egyptian chairs you will see in museums everywhere, have flat wooden seats which would have needed padding for comfort, and they are richly ornamented with ivory and gold. They also have armrests which seem to be a feature of the most prestigious chairs.
The chair above is a high chair, made for a nobleman and simpler in design than Tutankhamun’s as it has no arms. This chair is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
On the sarcophagus of the Eleventh Dynasty Princess Kawit, the lady is shown having her hair done while sitting on what appears to be, at first sight, a blockthrone, but when you take a closer look you will see the stretcher between the chair legs, and the back and armrests, which tell you that this is a simplified picture of a fine wooden chair.
The best surviving version of a lady’s bedroom chair is the one from the tomb of Queen Hetepheres, the mother of King Khufu.
This chair was part of a suite of furniture of the highest quality, which included a bed, a canopy frame and a curtain box. The chair legs are quite short. When the queen sat down with her feet flat on the floor, her knees would have been raised almost to the level of her chin. This chair is one of the oldest in the world and is covered in gold. It would have been used with cushions to make it more comfortable than may appear. This chair and the other furniture of Queen Hetepheres are now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Another type of chair belonging to the queen is sometimes described as a ‘sedan chair’ because it was supported on poles carried on the shoulders of servants, just as the sacred barques of the gods were carried shoulder-high by priests. Only people of real importance would be transported in this fashion. In his tomb at Saqqara, the Vizier Kagemni can be seen in his carrying chair, able to inspect the activities of his estate from his elevated position.
Further reading: any well-illustrated publication dealing with the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb (including, of course, recent editions of ANCIENT EGYPT), will contain examples of stools and chairs. For information about how chairs were made, see Egyptian Woodworking and Furniture by Geoffrey Killen.
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