The Middle Kingdom necropolis of Beni Hasan is situated on the east bank of the Nile between Cairo and Luxor. Cut into the limestone cliffs, which overlook the Nile, are a number of Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasty tombs. These tombs were built for the nomarchs of the Sixteenth Nome, or administrative district, of Upper Egypt. These powerful men ruled almost independently of the king. One of their duties was to regulate work produced in state or temple workshops, and scenes in their tombs show carpenters at work.
Private individuals could have furniture commissioned only through the patronage of the norae. This tight supervision of work was necessary to conserve those raw materials which were available. Each workshop had an inspector, who received instructions from an overseer. He was probably a dependant of the nomarch.
On a slight slope below these nomarchs' tombs was an immense burial ground where the small tombs of those civil servants, officials and dependants who served the nome were sited. These people were buried in some splendour in small burial chambers which were discovered at the bottom of a deep pit. Their tombs were excavated by John Garslanj', Professor of Archaeology at Liverpool University, during Ihe 1902-1 seasons. He cleared 880 small tombs, the contents of which have now been widely dispersed. Some pieces remain in public collections while others are privately owned.
In tomb 569 Garstang discovered a stool whose legs are shaped in a typical Middle Kingdom style (figure 46). Each leg is tapered lo a small
47. Seated ergonome on a Middle Kingdom seat.
waistband from where the foot curves sharply and is set on a bevelled shoe. The top of each leg is rounded, with a pair of crossing through-mortises below. The end of each seat rail is cut with a common tenon that has two shoulders. To strengthen the frame, wedges would have been driven into the cheeks of each joint. The long edges of the seat rails are also rounded to prevent wear to the reed seat.
The most important burial to be discovered was tomb 183, which was attributed by John Garstang to Dedyt-baqt. He found in this tomb a table, the legs of two seats and a headrest. The table was edged with a cavetto cornice and was set on a sturdy under frame. The shapes of the seat legs are again typical of a Middle Kingdom style, with the rear legs having a short back post.
Three similar legs, from Beni Hasan, are preserved in the museum of the School of Archaeology and Oriental Studies, University of Liverpool. Unfortunately the back and seat rails have been lost. With measurements taken from the stool in tomb 569 and from the three legs in Liverpool, it has been possible to draw a scaled diagram of this seat (figure 47).
These Middle Kingdom seats were smaller than chairs used today. The living stature of a well-built Egyptian male of this period was 1.70 metres, about 40 mm shorter than the average modern European male. Both the tibia and femur were smaller and the hip height less. This was reflected in the seat height, which is the most important measurement when designing a chair. It is curious that Egyptian carpenters used the lowest possible seat height when making chairs. Perhaps they were governed by the social class of its intended owner or there was pressure
on them to conserve timber. However, a lower seat height does give a more comfortable sitting posture. The legs can be extended in front of the body and the soft sensitive tissue behind the knees does not come into contact with the seat.
Because of the crossing mortise joints in the legs the seat rails are not in the same plane. The seat, which was made from bundles of reed stems bound together with five strands of cord, would have been placed on the lower side seat rails. This mat made a solid block which under load compressed and gave adequate support.
Important directional changes in Middle Kingdom furniture design can be studied by examining the furniture illustrated on stelae from that period, especially the large collection housed in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, Cairo.
These Middle Kingdom stelae show that tables were widely used for displaying vases or holding water pots. They are usually very low, with either straight or splayed legs and with a single stretcher strung below the table top (figure 48a). A particularly fine splayed-legged table with cavetto cornice and double stretcher (figure 48b) is similar to the table discovered in tomb 183 at Beni Hasan.
Stools rarely appear in these stelae, for the majority of seats are designed with a short back support over which is draped a cover or cushion. They have either straight legs or plain legs fashioned in the
form of the front and hind legs of a bull or lion (figure 48c). Also illustrated are a small number of elegant chairs, some having slender, gazelle-shaped legs. An interesting example shows that chairs are given complex curved back supports, of full height, made from angled slats of timber. They are jointed into the rear seat rail and into the underside of a curved and moulded top rail (figure 48d). The surface of the chair illustrated in the stela simulates animal skin. Perhaps chairs would have been veneered or painted to create this effect. In the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, Cairo, are preserved a painted shield and arrow quiver case which resemble cowskin and date from this period.
Slender vase stands supporting single vases are also to be found in this collection. The tops are fitted with a moulded cup of wood into which the round or tapered bottoms of vases or bowls could be seated (figure 48e).
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