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Headrest

Ancient Egyptian, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1550 – 1292 BC
Wood

Our object of the month for July was used around 3,000 years ago to make life easier in the hot, desert climate of Ancient Egypt. It is a wooden headrest or ‘pillow’. By propping up their neck or head on the curved upper part of the headrest, it was possible for Ancient Egyptians to get a good night’s sleep in the heat. The smooth wood of the headrest combined with air flow around the head would have had a cooling effect. Headrests were also made from ivory, stone, and ceramic. Wealthy people could sleep on beds with wooden frames, like those found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, but poorer people made do with a mat on a mud platform. Egyptian homes did not contain as much furniture as ours do today, but the headrest was an important item for a comfortable life.

Ancient Egyptian headrest on a woven mat, Musée du Louvre Antiquités égyptiennes E 168 ; N 1510, Wikimedia commons

The headrest was also an important item to include in a tomb for both practical and symbolic reasons. It was believed that a headrest would protect the head of the deceased person – headrests were often placed either inside or next to the coffin. The headrest was also a symbol of rebirth and the sun, rising and setting just like a person’s head when they lie down to go to sleep. The shape of an Ancient Egyptian headrest was similar to the hieroglyph ‘akhet’ used to represent the sun in the horizon. A person’s head resting on a curved headrest was believed to resemble the sun rising between two hills.

Amulets in the shape of miniature headrests have also been found in tombs. Amulets could be included in a burial or worn in daily life for protection - the headrest was important for protection of the head. Spell 166 of the text known as the Book of the Dead states that a headrest provides comfort and protection from decapitation. Depending on what they could afford, Ancient Egyptians could choose spells from the Book of the Dead to include in their tombs to help them make the transition into the afterlife.

Illustration from the Book of the Dead of Khensumose, c. 1075 – 945 BC, with the ‘horizon’ hieroglyph at the top, Wikimedia commons

Amulet in the form of a miniature headrest, stone, Late Period, 664 – 332 BC, The Metropolitan Museum, accession number 04.2.80

This headrest is the only example of its kind in the castle’s Egyptian collection, although headrests were quite common in Ancient Egypt. It was bought by the last private owner of the castle, Denys Eyre Bower, in the 1960s. According to a book which records part of his life, Beyond Belief by Mary Eldridge (1996), Denys bought it from a local sale along with other objects as part of a lot –

‘Local purchases sometimes had unexpected results. He had bought a lot containing an Egyptian wooden pillow or headrest, which cost him £80, more than he could afford.’ Eldridge, 1996, p. 110

The Egyptian collection is displayed today in what was originally known as the ‘Buddha Room’. When Denys still lived at the castle, the Egyptian collection used to be displayed in three rooms upstairs. There is an old photograph in the archive which gives us an idea of how Denys used to display his objects – crowded into antique wooden display cases and on shelves with very few labels. Today, the objects are displayed in the Egyptian Room on the ground floor in a way that is more engaging and accessible to a wider audience. 

This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

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