In early 2017 I began thinking seriously about beds and bedrooms in ancient Egypt. I had just been asked to review Nadine Moeller’s recently published book The Archaeology of Urbanism in Ancient Egypt: From the Predynastic Period to the End of the Middle Kingdom and heard a fascinating lecture by Manon Schutz about beds in ancient Egypt at the Essex Egyptology Group. I found both challenged my assumptions about how we view domestic space, particularly ‘the bedroom’ and what these things meant to the ancient Egyptians.
Rectangular rooms with some form of ‘niche’ at one end, have long been identified as ‘bedrooms’ in Egyptian houses. A series of sloping mudbrick sleeping platforms found at Giza in the settlement of the Pyramid builders confirm that some of these niched rooms were used for sleeping (An image is available on page 73 (Fig 33) of the original field report).
However, the idea of the ‘bedroom’ as a private place for sleeping, is very much a modern construction and probably isn’t applicable to the ancient Egyptian context (Manon Schutz, 2017, presentation to Essex Egyptology Group). Bedrooms might, therefore, have been used for a great many activities, including public ones such as meeting visitors and transacting business. The mudbrick beds from Giza included in Moeller’s (2016, 203) discussion of Old Kingdom settlements are reminiscent of the traditional Chinese ‘Kang’, a brick platform warmed by hot air from a stove (Fig 1. left). Kangs were multifunctional structures, that were also used for sitting, receiving visitors and general living and it is possible that Egyptian beds and bedrooms were equally multifunctional. Moeller (2016, 377-380) notes that ‘multifunctionality’ is a major feature of Egyptian houses and Manon Shutz emphasised that this is also true of beds, which could be used as seating and were status indicators (Fig 2).
Taken together the multifunctional role of the bed and the bedroom can also be related to the more general layout of Egyptian houses. Moeller (2016, 194; 343) describes a core set of rooms in Old and Middle Kingdom houses. The precise layouts of the rooms vary over time and the number of rooms increases with the size of the houses, but throughout the periods they are always laid out to obscure visibility and restrict access into the innermost rooms. This is also clear in the layout of New Kingdom houses at Amarna (Fig 3).
If bedrooms were more public spaces than we have been conditioned to think, then official business might have been transacted in the ‘bedroom’, perhaps with the owner sitting on the bed where he could demonstrate his wealth and status. The petitioner, messenger, or fellow official would be lead through the maze-like series of rooms, perhaps decorated to impress visitors, along the indirect route prescribed by the layout of the core rooms. The convoluted layout of the rooms suggests that your access to the interior of the house was directly proportional to your status, with lower status visitors perhaps dealt with by lackeys or subordinates in the outer rooms. Those of sufficient importance would be ushered through to the ‘bedroom’ to see the official seated in his (or perhaps ‘her’, where we are talking about a queen, priestess or another powerful woman) bedroom/office, perhaps on his own bed.
There is relatively little evidence available to reveal precisely how ancient Egyptian houses were used, so proving hypotheses about where guests were received and business transacted is difficult and it is often possible to construct an alternative scenario. Personal preference, questions of decorum and practical considerations might also have been considerations. But by challenging the centrality of our ideas about room use, privacy and social dynamics, it’s possible to rethink Egyptian civilisation on its own terms rather than through the lens of our experience. To this end, Moeller’s book is a challenging and thought-provoking contribution to our understanding of Egyptian settlement archaeology.
You can read my full review of Nadine Moeller’s The Archaeology of Urbanism in Ancient Egypt: From the Predynastic Period to the End of the Middle Kingdom for free online at the American Journal of Archaeology.