Headrest, 19th–20th century
Zimbabwe; Shona peoples
5 5/8 x 6 1/4 x 2 1/2 in. (14.3 x 15.9 x 6.4 cm)
Gift of Douglas Newton, 1986 (1986.484.1)
The use of headrests in southern Africa has been traced back to the twelfth-century archaeological site of Mapungubwe, an urban center along the Limpopo River. There, evidence of gold sheeting believed to have adorned a long-disintegrated wood headrest has been recovered.
The designs of such works, created to protect elaborate coiffures, reflect a range of regional styles. Among the Shona, headrests were exclusively carved and used by men. Since they also functioned as vehicles of communication with the ancestral realm, headrests and other personal articles were frequently buried with their owners, evidencing the intimate connection between the object and its owner. In other cases, they were passed along to male descendants.