Furniture of the Old Kingdom

Carpentry and furniture manufacture were among the earliest trades plied in ancient Egypt, and by the Old Kingdom woodworking had become a well-developed craft practiced by accomplished artisans. The elegant furniture found within the Fourth Dynasty tomb of Queen Hetep-heres I attests to the high level of craftsmanship that had been attained and to a skilled tradition of woodworking, which made it one of the most significant Egyptian minor arts. The discovery of this remarkable tomb not only provided tangible examples demonstrating the advanced technical prowess of Egyptian carpenters but also opened a unique window into the Old Kingdom through which we might better understand the domestic life-style and household goods of the ancient Egyptians. Depictions of furniture in statuary, tomb paintings, and reliefs expand and enhance our knowledge of the development of the craft and, as comparatively few examples of Old Kingdom furniture have survived to the present day, must be the source of much of our information on the subject. Most of this material, whether artifactual or pictorial, originated in royal or nobles’ tombs.

The Materials and Types of Old Kingdom Furniture

Wood was the material most commonly employed for furniture construction, but ivory, stone, metal, and wicker were also utilized on occasion. The wood available in Egypt is poor in quality and limited in quantity— circumstances that make the development of a highly skilled carpentry trade striking. Although the identification of wood species has often been overlooked during artifact analyses, we know that some indigenous trees used by furniture makers from the Predynastic Period through the Old Kingdom included acacia, tamarisk, willow, sycamore, date palm, poplar, and sidder. It is possible that carob, fig, doom palm, and persea were also employed, because they are either mentioned in inscriptions or supplied fruits that have been found in early tombs. The lack of superior wood in Egypt made its importation imperative. Thus cedar, cypress, fir, pine, yew, and perhaps also birch were transported from the area of Syria and Lebanon, while ebony was brought in from regions to the south of Egypt, particularly the Sudan and Ethiopia.1 Evidence that Egyptians imported wood appears on the Palermo Stone (cat. no. 115), which records that during the Fourth Dynasty King Snefru sent forty ships to acquire cedar from Lebanon. This inscription not only tells us that wood was imported but also suggests that good-quality timber, and particularly cedar, was an important and highly valued commodity in the culture of ancient Egypt.

Although there is a paucity of extant examples, the evolution of furniture can be traced from the Predynastic and Archaic Periods, which precede the Old Kingdom, on the basis of the sparse evidence that does survive. Preserved by the arid environment, the First Dynasty tombs at Abydos have yielded remains of wood furniture, often decorated with basketry motifs and ivory inlays. Hippopotamus and elephant ivories, finely carved in the shape of bulls’ legs, that were used as furniture supports2 have been unearthed, and similarly wrought wood examples have also been discovered. The base of each leg, beneath the carved bull’s hoof, terminates in a ribbed cylinder designed to protect the foot of the support. Furniture legs continued to be finished with pedestal feet of this kind even after the Old Kingdom.

Many well-preserved pieces of early furniture were found by W. M. F. Petrie at the Upper Egyptian site of Tarkhan.3 There, within the First Dynasty mastaba tombs, he discovered small, simple tables, trays, and four different types of bed frame—an assemblage that supplies valuable insight into the practices of daily life and the sort of furniture in common use in Predynastic and Archaic times. The bed frames vary in style from very simple objects, constructed from four fortuitously bent tree branches, to complex examples. The latter display a high degree of woodworking prowess, as the carved rails are often finished with papyrus-shaped terminals and the heavy bovine legs are attached to them by lashing and mortise-and-tenon joints. Most beds were inclined slightly from the head down toward the foot. Interestingly, no stools or chairs were discovered at Tarkhan; however, several examples are illustrated in Second Dynasty tomb stelae from Helwan.4

Finely detailed wall paintings uncovered by James Quibell in 1911 within the Third Dynasty mastaba of Hesi-re at Saqqara5 depict a considerable quantity of household furniture and other furnishings for use by the tomb owner in the afterlife. Among the goods illustrated are numerous bed frames, stools, chairs, chests, tables, game boxes, and headrests, all items that would typically have equipped a noble’s home. In comparison with the preceding Archaic Period furniture, these exhibit more refined design and carpentry techniques and a strikingly wider variety of styles and models. Particularly notable is the range of box and chest types, each of which may have served a different function. The Hesi-re paintings suggest not only an evolution of this kind but also that inlays, gilding, paint, and imported woods were being used by the Third Dynasty and that the basic conventions, traditions, and forms governing Egyptian furniture production had been established by this time. This development is corroborated by eleven beautifully carved wood panels discovered in Hesi-re’s mastaba by Auguste Mariette during the mid-nineteenth century: these show Hesi-re in raised relief assuming a variety of poses with refined furnishings of various kinds; for example in one panel he is seated upon a bovine- or gazelle-legged stool in front of a table (cat. no. 17).

The funerary assemblage of Queen Hetep-heres I, wife of Snefru, the first ruler of the Fourth Dynasty, was discovered in 1925 by George Reisner.6 This rare archaeological find lay in a small room at the bottom of a deep shaft near the pyramid of the queen’s son Khufu at Giza. Among the grave goods was a collection of royal furniture including a bed, a portable canopy, several boxes, two chairs, and a carrying chair (cat. no. 33). Many objects were inlaid and covered with gold foil, but unfortunately much of the original wood had deteriorated, leaving gilding and inlay fragments on the floor. Several pieces that were painstakingly reconstructed by the excavators are characterized by both an elegance and a simplicity of design and proportion. Like the earlier furniture known from artifacts and depictions, these objects incorporate animal and floral elements that display a high degree of realism. Hetep-heres I’s gilded bed bears a striking similarity to the beds represented in the tomb of Hesi-re but differs from them in its addition of a footboard and use of leonine rather than bovine legs. Her chairs are also fitted with leonine legs, which from the Fourth Dynasty forward became common. Of the two chairs found only one could be reconstructed completely, but both appear to have had similar solid cubic forms with low, deep seats and decorated side panels. Carved in an openwork pattern beneath the armrests of the reconstructed chair are three gilded papyrus heads and stalks tied together in a cluster. Motifs based on natural forms appear as well in the ornamentation of other pieces from the tomb: for example, the ends of the carrying poles of the sedan chair are finished with gold palmiform capitals (cat. no. 33); a faience feather pattern decorates the bed’s footboard; while rosettes alternate with a feather motif on the back of the second armchair, each of whose side panels bears a falcon sitting upon a palm column. Basketry and mat patterns long in use are also seen in Hetep-heres I’s furniture, decorating uprights from her portable canopy and the reconstructed chair.

Tools and Methods of Production

At the beginning of the Archaic Period copper implements became widespread, largely replacing the flint tools of earlier times and making finely detailed woodworking feasible. Walter Emery discovered a large cache of copper carpenters’ tools in the First Dynasty mastaba tomb 3471 at Saqqara,7 which provides evidence that the implements of the ancient carpenters are in many respects similar to those of today’s artisans. Axes and saws were employed initially to split and shape green wood. Larger pieces of timber were tied to an upright post and cut from the top downward with a short saw. However, unlike many modern saws that cut when pushed or pulled, ancient saws cut only when the tool was pulled; moreover, the teeth of the early saws face in the direction of the handle and do not necessarily extend over the entire length of the blade. (The use of this type of saw combined with the poor quality of indigenous timbers often resulted in the production of short planks of wood.) The freshly manufactured planks would have been left to dry before they were made into furniture in order to avoid problems created by the contraction of moist green wood. For curved elements timbers were heated and then bent, or naturally curved pieces of wood were adapted and integrated.8 Carpenters relied upon copper adze blades lashed to wood handles to plane and trim wood surfaces, while bow drills and awls bored holes that were required—in joints for the insertion of lashing or in chair frames for attachments for woven seats, for example. Several types of copper chisels were used. Some were hit with heavy wood or stone mallets to cut joints, whereas others were employed for hand carving and detail work, with the required pressure being administered by hand. The final smoothing of the piece was accomplished with sandstone polishers. The sharpness of a tool edge was maintained by honing it on an oiled sharpening stone, usually a flat piece of slate.9

Butt joints and simple miter joints were the most commonly used type of joint; however, mortise-and-tenon joints, half-lap joints, scarf joints with butterfly clamps, dovetail joints, and many more complex varieties of miter joints, including shoulder, double shoulder, dovetailed miter-housing, and miter-housing corner joints, were also employed.10 Throughout much of the Old Kingdom wet leather thongs drawn through holes were used to lash components together and to reinforce joints. As the leather dried it contracted, thus securing the connection. Holes drilled in the top of a bed leg, for example, allowed it to be tied to the bed’s wood frame with a thong. The addition of a tenon on the leg top, fitted into a mortise on the frame, often provided additional support.1 However, wood dowels, animal glues, and cleats gradually supplanted much thong lashing. Dowels appeared as early as the Second Dynasty,12 and during the Fifth Dynasty the use of animal glues became widespread. These glues were manufactured from boiled animal hides and bone, much as they are today, and applied by brush. Gesso made from gypsum was also employed as an adhesive for inlays and gold leaf. Thicker gold sheeting was attached by small nails.13 Occasionally the surface of poor-caliber wood was covered with a thin sheet of finer wood, often ebony. This veneer was affixed with a resin early in the Old Kingdom and with a glue later in the period, while larger fragments were attached by small dowels or nails. The use of veneer as early as the First Dynasty is documented by a box discovered by Emery in the tomb of Hemaka at Saqqara.14

A carpenters’ workshop depicted in the Fifth Dynasty mastaba of Ti at Saqqara (fig. 71)15 shows artisans engaged in the preparation of wood, which they are shaping, sawing, smoothing, bending, drilling, and polishing, and in furniture construction. A headrest sits on the floor, while craftsmen polish a chest, drill a hole in a box lid, and fashion boxes and a bed. In a similar scene from the Fifth Dynasty tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara, carpenters are making a bed, a door, and several other objects, notably chests and tables, many of which incorporate architectural elements—there are, for example, chests with gable lids.16 Moreover, chests with cavetto cornices are depicted in the early Fifth Dynasty pyramid temple of Sahure at Abusir17 Such representations of furniture and everyday scenes of carpenters at work, as well as the frequent inclusion of furniture and models within tombs, underscore the importance of the role furniture played in the lives of the ancient Egyptians.

JULIE ANDERSON

  1. Lucas and Harris 1962, pp. 429-48; Killen 1980, pp. 1-7; and Killen 1994b, pp. 7-8.
  2. Petrie 1901, pl. 34.
  3. Petrie, Wainwright, and Gardiner 1913, pp. 1-31.
  4. See Saad 1957.
  5. Quibell 1913.
  6. Reisner and Smith 1955.
  7. Emery 1949, pp. 17-57; concerning carpenters’ tools, see also Petrie 1917.
  8. See Montet 1925, pp. 311-15.
  9. Baker 1966, pp. 24-25, 296-301; Killen 1980, pp. 12-22; Der Manuelian 1982, pp. 63-64; Killen 1994b, pp. 12-13, 19-21, 33-34. See also Petrie 1917.
  10. Aldred 1954, pp. 684-703; Baker 1966, pp. 297-301; Killen 1980, pp. 8-11; Killen 1994b, pp. 12-16.
  11. Baker 1966, pp. 21-26.
  12. Killen 1980, p. 10.
  13. Baker 1966, pp. 301-3; Killen 1980, pp. 8-11; Killen 1994b, pp. 16-18.
  14. Emery 1938, no. 432, pl. 23a.
  15. Concerning carpenters, see Montet 1925, pp. 298-315.
  16. Duell 1938, vol. 1, pls. 29-31.
  17. Borchardt 1913, pl. 60.