Reliefs and wall paintings

The few bed-frames and illustrations of early seats discovered in tombs of the Early Dynastic Period indicate the kind of furniture commonly used then. All of these pieces of furniture would probably have been found in the houses of both middle and high ranking officials and their families.

By the Third Dynasty, which marks the beginning of the Old Kingdom, major advances in building construction and the associated trades of woodworking and furniture manufacture are seen. The improvement in the design of furniture can be seen in a series of remarkable wall paintings in the Third Dynasty mastaba of Hesirc at Saqqara. Hesire was chief of dentists and physicians during the reign of Djoser, whose Step Pyramid can also be found at Saqqara.

One of the earliest scholars to excavate sites in Egypt was the Frenchman Auguste Mariette. He opened the tomb of Hesire during the mid nineteenth century and discovered eleven wooden panels, five of which are displayed in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo. Each had been beautifully and precisely carved in raised relief to portray Hesire in a number of elegant positions. One shows him seated on a typical animal-leg stool whose side poles are finished with papyrus-flower terminals.

After these panels were removed from the mastaba its position was forgotten and it became hidden under the moving Saqqara sands. The tomb was reopened in 1911 by J. E. Quibell, who discovered the furniture paintings which Mariette had overlooked. These paintings show a complete set of typical furniture which would have been used to furnish homes of the Old Kingdom and they show how design and technical developments in furniture production had advanced since the previous era. The quality of the furniture displayed indicates the use of imported timbers; furthermore, emphasis on applied and decorative techniques is beginning to be an established rule.

The bed-frames and stools illustrated in the tomb paintings are generally similar to those already described. The patterns rendered on these pieces of furniture suggest they were made of, or veneered with, timbers such as ebony. Two types of bed-frame are displayed, one with bovine-shaped legs and the other in an unconventional form with curved or bent elements which are set on a drum (figure 34). Both types slope slightly towards the foot of the bed, where a separate frame is placed to stop the bedding from slipping off. Again stools and chairs are to be

34. Two bed-frames, Third Dynasty, tomb of Hcsirc, Saqqara. (After Quibell, The Tomb of Hesy, Cairo, 1913, plate XX.)

found in the traditional bovine form. However, there were also a pair of rectangular stools and a chair with a framework back rest which have curved supports below their seats (figure 35).

  1. Stool and chair, Third Dynasty, tomb of Hesire, Saqqara. (After Quibell, 77te Tomb of Hesy, Cairo, 1913, plate XVIII.)
  2. Stool and chair, Third Dynasty, tomb of Hesire, Saqqara. (After Quibell, 77te Tomb of Hesy, Cairo, 1913, plate XVIII.)

The most interesting pieces of furniture in these tomb paintings are four splendid chests (figure 36). Each is of a framework construction fitted with wooden panels. The interiors would have been divided into compartments that would have held jewellery. Between the centre and bottom rails is set a decorative pattern of hieroglyphic symbols which appear to be either gilded or carved in ebony. Similar chests were found in the New Kingdom tomb of Tutankhamun.

36. Two boxes, Third Dynasty, tomb of Hcsirc, Saqqara. (After Quibell, The Tomb of Hesy, Cairo, 1913, plates XVII and xvm.)

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