Exploring the Past Through Ancient Egyptian Furniture

We don’t often pay that much attention to the furniture that we use every day. But author and guest blogger GEOFFREY KILLEN, who studies the furniture of Ancient Egypt, has explored its relationship with ancient society, and how it developed.

Why study ancient Egyptian furniture?

My research explores how furniture design and construction developed to meet the needs of an ancient society. The unique record of furniture and woodwork that has been left to us is due to the method by which Egyptians placed examples of it in the protective environment of their tombs. From the very earliest period Egyptians used furniture not only as a functional item in a domestic setting but also in a funerary context. The physical remains of this furniture are examined through detailed photographs and constructional diagrams in the Ancient Egyptian Furniture series of books. This evidence provides us with an excellent opportunity to trace a timeline when the use of better quality imported timber and technological developments determined subtle changes in the constructional form of furniture. Leading from the simple bedframe that doubled as a litter that developed into the stool and chair. These constructional frameworks also enabled the development of the table, vase stand, box and footstool. We can also see how furniture design was influenced by cultural and religious belief, particularly those items that were exclusively manufactured for the pharaoh to promulgate the power of the Egyptian state at home and abroad.

Another aspect of my research examines the working practices of Egyptian carpenters and explores how furniture and woodwork was privately commissioned and manufactured by cooperatives of craftsmen. The tools used by these carpenters have also survived and my research has been to determine the manufacturing procedures employed by them by using a range of replica tools that I have made to make items of domestic and funerary furniture and woodwork that are now preserved in a number of British museums.

Artefacts can sometimes survive in small or broken fragments, or without its original context. How do you go about studying it in this case?

Fragment of a wooden window screen from the Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes. Length 140 mm; width 20 mm; depth 27 mm.

This small piece of wood is easily recognisable as a single element from a tessellated window screen (left). It, with thousands of other artefacts, was put up for sale by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA), New York, over a number of months during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and was sold in the museum’s gift shop. There was no accession number on the piece when it was purchased by a visitor to the museum and there were no notes or labels with this wooden fragment. The clerks at the time of purchase said the piece had a provenance relating to an Egyptian excavation at Thebes by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The person who originally purchased this piece sent it to me to see whether I could find any more information regarding the artefact. My curiosity was increased in that I knew of a similar piece preserved in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The Oxford piece was discovered by Naville in 1904 and was published in Deir el-Bahari, Part III, pl. XXXIV(4), and came from a Roman/Coptic context.

After consulting specialists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) it was established that the piece is ex-MMA 14.1.247, excavated by the MMA in Deir el-Bahri in 1913-14. It came from the Monastary of Epiphanius at Thebes and dates towards the end of the sixth century. It had been published by Winlock, The Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes I, 56-57 and pl. XV; also BMMA 10 (July, 1915), 150 fig. 10. In Epiphanius there is a drawn reconstruction of the screen as well. Winlock mentions that Naville found some more pieces (11th Dynasty Temple III, pl. 34), of which the Oxford piece is probably one, though he notes that Davis found some at Medinet Habu (CG 8793 and 8795: Strzygowski, Koptische Kunst).

Tessellated wooden pieces show what the window screen’s pattern would have looked like.

As part of this research programme a number of identical replica wooden elements were manufactured that once assembled provide us with a unique glimpse into how spaces and windows were screened in early Christian Egypt (right). The continuation of similar geometric wooden window tracery can be seen in the mid-13th century Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain.  The woodworking skills and techniques and complex geometric designs created in Egypt influenced the work of carpenters throughout ancient and mediaeval worlds.

Know of something that might be of interest?

If you have or know of an unusual piece of woodwork of Egyptian provenance that has not been published or catalogued in one of my three volumes (Geoffrey Killen 2017: Ancient Egyptian Furniture, I – III, Oxbow Books, Oxford.), please contact me at the following email address and I will assess the object. I will need high definition images (JPEG) of the object and as much information as you can provide, including sizes in millimetres.



GEOFFREY KILLEN is a leading Egyptologist, wood technologist and furniture historian whose expertise embraces forty years of research in the areas of Ancient Egyptian Furniture and Woodworking Technology.

Dr. Killen has studied the collections of Egyptian furniture and woodwork at most of the major world museums including the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, Cairo. He has lectured and given practical demonstrations of Ancient Egyptian woodworking processes and techniques in the United States of America and Britain. He has written extensively on the subject and also led in the field of experimental archaeology where making and using replica woodworking tools and equipment has generated and tested archaeological hypotheses. His practical work is now displayed together with those original artefacts in several British museums.

Geoffrey Killen is organising a tour of the United States of America during the Fall of 2018. For details or to arrange a lecture, please email Dr. Killen.

Ancient Egyptian Furniture, by Geoffrey Killen and published by Oxbow Books, is comprised of  three volumes on the forms of furniture used in ancient Egypt. Volumes 1 and 2 are revised and updated editions on the history and development of common forms of furniture used throughout the Egyptian period and of boxes, chests and footstools respectively. Volume 3 is a new synthesis of furniture of the Ramesside Empire. Each volume includes a fully illustrated catalogue of known pieces from museums around the world, classified by type with detailed analyses of the materials, tools and joinery. The splendid photographs and drawings illustrate each piece and technique.

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