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Triumph, Protection and Dreams: East African Headrests in Context

focuses on a collection of Ancient Egyptian headrests in the Fitzwilliam Museum. We aim, in this exhibition, to offer visual evidence for the extraordinary diversity of the headrest in African cultures and to raise questions with regard to continuity, development and change, rather than to present a single social theory to explain the continued use of this iconic object over a period of almost 5000 years.

In addition to showing material from an Ancient African culture, the exhibition includes a selection of more recent headrests, dating to the first half of the twentieth century, from other East African cultures, now in private collections. The later headrests have the same functions as, and sometimes even similar forms to, the examples from Ancient Egypt, which raises the question of whether there is continuity of use across time and cultures.

There is evidence to support the idea of continuity of headrest use in Africa. Our earliest known headrests come from burial contexts in Ancient Egypt, which are traditionally dated to Third Dynasty in the Old Kingdom (around 2707-2369 BC) and they continue to be found in burial contexts in Ancient Egypt until the Ptolemaic Period (323-30 BC).

In neighbouring Libya headrests were also found among the Garamantes who ruled the Fezzan between 500 BC and AD 700. In Mali, they were present among the Tellem, from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries AD, and among their followers, the better-known Dogons, until the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century headrests belonging to the Bicharin and the Ababds in Nubia still present forms similar to those of their ancient counterparts, and in this particular region they seem to have survived, in use, into the twentieth century. Furthermore, the use of headrests could have easily spread from one cultural group to another.

The main use of headrests in East Africa was to support, and therefore protect, the characteristically elaborate headdresses and hairstyles. In 1880 the missionary Edward Coode Hore described the hairstyle of the “waGuha” on the Lukuga River in Tanzania: The hair is encouraged to grow long by every possible aid of combing and stretching over rolls and puffs, which are built up into shapes resembling crowns or turbans, and ornamented with iron and copper ornaments, bands of cowries and beads and terminal points and cones, forming a structure requiring great care to preserve from damage. This is achieved by the use of little wooden headrests, or pillows, which are used in sleeping to keep the head from contact with the ground or bed. Elaborate hairstyles are found in numerous other groups – best known is perhaps the mudpack coiffure of the Karamojong of Kenya and Uganda. Hairstyles are often an indicator of status, especially among pastoralists. In the Pokot society, hierarchies but also hairstyle and feather decorations indicate a young man’s rise in society: the initiation ceremony of the sapana allows him to wear the blue mudpack headdress. In some cultures headrests are linked to dreaming; in Chokwe divination, for example, miniature headrests are called “pillows of dreams”. The incisions on headrests are sometimes linked to bodily scarification, with symbolic overtones. In addition, headrests in Africa were sometimes reserved for leaders and followed their owners into the grave, as in Ancient Egypt. The man in this photograph belongs to the Karo people and lives in Korcho village, Omo Valley, Ethiopia. He uses a headrest to protect the clay headdress he wears at the back of his head, and to which he attaches feathers. He also uses the headrest as a seat.