Carved wooden headrest

Shona, 19th century AD
From Zimbabwe

Wooden pillow

The Shona carvers of Zimbabwe produce distinctive wooden headrests, which usually comprise geometric - circular , triangular and rectangular - designs. The concentric circles, which are common to many headrests, are thought to derive from various sources, including the base of the white Conus shells that are worn as signs of status by chiefs and diviners, the ripples in a pool into which a stone has been thrown, or the patterns of body scarification on women.

The decorative motifs of the headrests and female scarification carry the same name, nyora, which refers to the ancestors, suggesting a connection between the spirit world of ancestors and women's fertility.

Headrests are used mainly by men, who are said to be visiting their ancestors during sleep. They are thus seen as a source of knowledge and prosperity. Headrests are buried along with the deceased or passed on to his descendants. They are sometimes used by Shona diviners as a spiritual bridge that links them to the world of the ancestors.

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More information


T. Phillips (ed.), Africa, the art of a continent (London, Royal Academy, 1995)


Height: 16.500 cm

Museum number

AOA 9763


Gift of Dr W.G. Atherstone


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