The tradition of furniture in Ancient Africa is not very well documented. This is because, traditionally, African history was only ever recorded orally – meaning that stories were passed on from generation to generation, and only ever by word of mouth. Because of this, some crucial details of African life have been lost over time.
I’m sure you can understand why, if you were telling a story to your grandkids, you might not choose to describe the kind of chair you sat on! However, some artifacts and stories remain that give an insight into the kind of furniture people might have had in Ancient Africa.
Historically, stools and chairs were very important in Ancient Africa. Just as thrones and the seats of kings/queens were important in mainland Europe as signs of status and power, stools fulfilled the same purpose in African society. The owners of stools in African tribes would display them for others to see, to show the power they held in the social hierarchy.
It was considered a grave sin to sit in somebody else’s stool. In some tribes, the stool was seen as a symbol for the owner’s soul, and sitting on another person’s stool meant that you had contaminated their spirit.
The spiritual and societal importance of stools outside the home meant that most Ancient African houses didn’t really have anywhere to sit. Most would sit on the ground, or on cushions of grass instead.
Tables were not particularly common in Ancient Africa. While in some Ancient African civilizations (like in Ancient Egypt,) most forms of furniture that we have in the modern world were still available, (couches, chairs, tables, wardrobes,) this was not the case for the majority of tribes. Most Ancient African homes were sparsely furnished, and people would eat off the ground or from their laps rather than use plates or tables.
Like stools, some tables held ceremonial purpose and would be used for only special rituals – e.g, religious ceremonies and burial rites. In some parts of Africa, it’s believed a person may have been laid out on a special stone table after death, where they would be cleaned and then buried.
There is little concrete evidence to support this, however, and so historians can only theorize why some “tables” may have been found in Ancient African sites.
Curiously, however, some African empires were famed for their woodcarving skills, and produced many great works of furniture to be sold abroad – however, they were rarely sold to the public for use in the home.
This suggests that furniture may have been viewed as something that only the very rich were allowed to own, even when it was easy to mass produce – in the Mali Empire, for instance, pots, chairs, and tables were built and designed using special wood and artistry, but very few of these were ever found in ruins of peasant settlements.
Part of the reason why furniture may have developed as a concept of wealth is that, in the early days of Ancient Africa, wood was much more scarce and difficult to find. This would naturally mean that only the very rich could afford to buy something made of it – and although this changed, the stigma surrounding its importance may have stayed the same.
Another special form of furniture in Ancient Africa were the wooden headrests they used. African headrests were used by both men and women, and were like small wooden pillows. Headrests were decorated according to the region in which they were built, and had a curved slot for you to put your head into.
These headrests may have been used to protect the elaborate hairstyles of those who slept on them, and to prevent the person’s head movement from ripping the beads out of their hair.
Some headrests also had spiritual significance, and were used to protect the owner from evil spirits while sleeping. This form of headrest was particularly common in Ancient Egypt.
What item of furniture was an important social symbol in Ancient Africa?
Why was it considered wrong to sit in another person’s stool?
– Stools were sometimes seen as symbols for the owner’s soul, and if somebody else sat in yours, your soul would be tainted.
Were tables common in Ancient Africa?
– No. Most Africans ate from their laps, or off the ground.
What spiritual significance did African headrests have?
– They protected those who slept on them from evil spirits.
What spiritual significance is it believed that tables had in Ancient African society?
– It is believed that tables may have been used in burial rites and other religious ceremonies.