Case 1

Ancient Egyptian Headrests

Headrests were used in Egypt in daily life, as seen in model houses, but most of the surviving examples were found in graves and tombs. The type and material depended on the status of the Deceased: rulers such as Tutankhamun were buried with ornate and elaborate examples. During the Old Kingdom, headrests were made of calcite, limestone and pottery in addition to wood. However, wood predominated in the Middle and New Kingdoms, with occasional uses of calcite and limestone, but also ivory and faience.

The headrest features in the Ancient Egyptian Book of Coming Forth by Day, which is better known today as the Book of the Dead. A number of examples of this important document have been preserved in the form of papyrus rolls. The Book of Coming Forth by Day was effectively a list of magical spells to enable the Deceased to complete their journey to the After Life. Two spells refer directly to the headrest or Wrs as it was known in Ancient Egyptian.

Spell 166 of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead was often inscribed on headrests, ensuring that they carried out their proper function.

Doves awake thee from sleep; they alert thee to the horizon. Raise thyself, (for) thou dost triumph over what was done against thee. Ptah has overthrown thy enemies. It has been commanded to act against him who acted against thee. Thou art Horus the son of Hathor, the fiery Cobra, of the fiery Cobra group, to whom a head was given after it was cut off. Thy head cannot be taken from thee hereafter; thy head can never be taken from thee ...

People also wore amulets in the form of the headrest to protect themselves, and headrest amulets were included in bandaging around mummies. Some of the headrests themselves are highly decorative and include images of key deities to protect the user or the Deceased. The examples from archaeological contexts also enable us to explore the types of people who were buried with headrests as well as the development of designs over time.

The dating of ancient headrests remains problematic, because different forms of headrests co-existed. Egyptologists normally work out a chronological typology for object categories, which allows them to allocate relative dates for different forms of the same object type. Evidence from the Tomb of Hesy at Saqqara, however, shows that three different forms of headrest were in use at the same time. It is possible that we need to re-think this particular category of object and that different styles of headrest were influenced more by geographical regions or cultural groups rather than changing gradually over time.

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The Fitzwilliam Museum : Case 1

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