Artifact in Focus: Head Rest, China

Think about where you slept last night. You had a mattress, sheets, a blanket and your favorite pillow. Now consider exchanging your pillow for a headrest made of wood or ceramics or bamboo.

Among the oldest known headrests are those from ancient Egypt. In life, ancient Egyptians slept with their heads on pillows of wood or alabaster. Eight headrests were found in the famous Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb.

China adopted the use of ceramic headrests, first manufactured in China during the Tang dynasty (roughly 600 to 900). Ceramic headrests became popular domestic items for the well-to-do during the Ming dynasty in China (around 1350 to 1650). A guide to elegant living suggested that porcelain used to make pillows has the “power to brighten the eyes and benefit the pupils.” Moreover, the pillows could influence and guide dreams.

Students at John Muir Middle School test the Ethiopian headrest made from wood and the Indonesian headrest made from woven rattan. Almost every student thinks the woven headrest is more comfortable!

Also, in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, people used carved wooden headrests to preserve their elaborate hairstyles while sleeping. The headrests themselves can be works of art, carved with images or geometric designs. The headrests would also act as conduits to the ancestors, inviting the spirits into the sleepers’ dreams.

The headrest is a symbol of Oromo culture in Ethiopia. In the Omo Valley, men always carry their headrests whenever and wherever they move. Typically, the headrest is made of wood and has a slightly curved tray fixed on a vertical support base.

The support keeps the Omo men’s clay headdress intact. It is also said to prevent insects from entering the ears.

In Japan, during the Edo and Meiji periods (around 1600 – 1900), women, particularly courtesans, wearing complicated hairstyles would use wooden bases under their necks to keep their hair from being crushed on the sleeping surface. To train geishas to sleep on the base, sticky rice would be spread around the base. Rice stuck in her hair would be a tell-tale sign that the sleeper had put her head on the sleeping surface. Even today, wood block pillows are used in traditional Japanese bath houses for both women and men.

In addition to the Chinese ceramic headrest, CCMM maintains wooden headrests from Ethiopia and Congo and a woven rattan headrest from Indonesia. The Indonesian headrest is similar to antique Japanese woven headrests, which are more comfortable to western necks.

This entry was posted in Artifact In Focus, From The Collection and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.