Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Headrests Across Cultures

Headrests like this one are prominent across diverse cultures and eras. From the dark vaults of Ancient Egyptian tombs to the banks of the Sepik River, headrests were utilized to support sleepers lying on their sides and preserve intricate hairstyles during the night. Many people from ancient civilizations slept on mats, therefore headrests were emblematic status symbols and were generally reserved for prominent figures in such cultures. Though they might look uncomfortable in comparison with our western accommodations, their structure actually supports proper spine alignment.

    From the porcelain headrests in the imperial dynasties of China to the early Africa, headrests show the evolution of a tradition. They have been described as “one of the strongest forms of evidence for the commonality of African traditions, from antiquity to the present, and from one end of the continent to another.” Researchers have been able to study interactions between ancient cultures by comparing different headrests, as discussions of aesthetic qualities are intimately linked to questions of religious and secular power, social values, and moral ideals.     

    The animal totems that decorate this Sepik headrest pay homage to crocodilian ancestors.  In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, only chiefs could have their headrests adorned with images of human beings. The Zulu people of South Africa created double headrests for married couples, and countless other cultures have specific characteristics that are evident through detailed study and comparison of headrests.

    Though they often receive less attention that anthropomorphic or zoomorphic statuary, headrests are important objects that link diverse cultures. The power of things extends ideologically — similar objects reflect similar ideals. The presence of headrests across cultures and times is more than just an similar appreciation of their functionality. The spirituality proclaimed by the engravings, as well as the intimate relationship various cultures have with sleep, are reflected in the headrests and serve to connect people who were never acquainted. This wordless identification of cultural similarities is a unique unifying power of objects.


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