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AB80With the exception of AB80, which was donated to the Egypt Centre by the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, the headrests on display in the Egypt Centre were purchased by Sir Henry Wellcome at a Sotheby auction in 1906. They had been part of the collection owned by Robert de Rustafjaell. 

Headrests, a type of pillow to support the head, have been found in tombs from the beginning of the Old Kingdom (2613-2160 BC) and continued through the Ptolemaic Period (332-32BC).  They usually consist of a curved upper piece on which the head rested, mounted on a pillar set in a supporting base and were the same basic shape throughout their long history. They were mainly made of wood, but stone examples have been found (e.g. W343 in Amarna case in House of Life).  However, some Egyptologists suggest that most stone headrests were made for use in the Afterlife and were not intended for everyday use.  

Headrests have been found close to the head of the mummy within the tomb, either on top of the coffin, or within it.  It is believed they were protecting the head from being severed from the body after death.  They could also be elevating the head so the face was aligned with the ‘eye panel’ on the coffin side.  The importance of the headrest is shown by the fact that even the poorest graves at Giza had a brick or rough stone block beneath the head of the dead person.  They have not only been found in graves but also in the houses of workmen in Deir el-Medina.  Many have been found with linen cloth wrapped around the crescent shape probably to ease discomfort.   

Symbolically, the headrest was connected with the sun, which like the head was lowered in the evening and arose in the day.  The headrest represents the hieroglyph akhet sign for the sun in the horizon. 

Headrests with fluted stems are typical of the Old Kingdom. Alabaster examples are known from the 5th Dynasty, although the most common type was of wood.  Headrests of the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BC) were more elaborate: for example in the shape of a folding stool and decorated with the head of the god Bes. Figures of Bes also appeared on more conventionally-shaped headrests, adding further protection for the head.  A headrest from the tomb of Tutankhamun has two lions upon the base. Two lions were said to guard the sun’s passage across the sky. 

The magical function of headrests is evident in their appearance as amulets in the New Kingdom.  Headrest amulets (e.g amulet BM8315 in amulet case in House of Death) are found only in royal tombs from the 18th Dynasty (1550 – 1295 BC) until the Late Period (747 – 332 BC) when they are more commonly used.  Most amulets are made of dark stone but some red, blue and green amulets, colours associated with regeneration, have been found.  This amulet may have been used as a substitute but it is also mentioned in the Coffin Texts and Spell 166 of the Book of the Dead, which states the headrest provides physical comfort and protects the deceased from being decapitated!

Further Reading: 

Andrews, C. 1994. Amulets of Ancient Egypt.  London: British Museum Press. 

Capel, A. K. and Markoe, G. E. (eds.) 1996. Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt. New York: Hudson Hills Press. 

Hallinckx, B.R. 2001. The symbolic assimilation of head and sun as expressed by headrests. In S.A.K.: 29-95. 

Silverman, D. P. (ed.) 1997. Searching for Ancient Egypt: Art, Architecture, and Artefacts from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  Ithaca:  Dallas Museum of Art and University of Pennsylvania Museum.