Headrests, as we have seen, have survived more or less continuously over almost 5000 years, with recorded evidence stretching from Ancient Egypt and Nubia to the Garamantes in Libya in Roman times, the Tellem in Mali (the latter from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries), and to Zimbabwe, from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, headrests were widely collected in a vast area stretching from Nubia in Sudan, to Zaire and to South Africa including Namibia; in West Africa, they are found among the Tellem and the Dogons, the Bobo, Nuna, Dagari, Lobi, but also the Akan and the Baule. They show a great diversity, reflecting the variety of African styles and cultures, but also traditions matched by innovations.
When he arrived in Sudan, the French explorer Fréderic Cailliaud (1787-1869) discovered that the inhabitants were still using wooden headrests. From 1819 to 1822, he travelled through Nubia as far as the sixth Nile cataract, discovering on the way Meroe, the ancient city on the east bank of the river, near the modern town of Shendi. In Shendi, he found headrests very similar to those he had seen under the heads of Ancient Egyptian mummies on the wall paintings and reliefs of the Theban tombs. “It provides”, he claims, “a good rest on which the Nubians sleep peacefully. In Sennar too, on the bank of the Blue Nile and not too far from Ethiopia, they still used similar ones instead of pillows”.
The more recent African headrests in this exhibition were first brought to Europe by travellers and residents in the first part of the twentieth century.