Simply somewhere to rest your head...or more than meets the eye?

After a busy December I seem to have blinked and missed January! That is why this is my first blog of 2013 (is it too late to wish everyone a Happy New Year?!). Given the topic of this post, one may wonder if I have snoozed my way through the last month. Alas, no; we’ve been busy in our shop on Wyle Cop, with lots of lovely new things making their way onto the shop floor.

All those months ago, when I wrote my first blog, I said that I loved items that have a story to tell. It is for that very reason that my soon-to-be husband and I opened It’s a nomad life last September. What often appeals, in the first instance, when buying an antique, are the aesthetic qualities of a piece. Do I think it’s pretty? Can I picture it in my home?

Without getting into a debate about whether any item can be called ‘art’ (I’ve done it before and it made my head hurt!), I have learned that an item which may appear to be primarily practical can have much more to it.

In the shop we have a number of headrests (some are shown in the picture above). Surely the name says it all? Not entirely….

Headrests are generally carved from wood and can and feature intricate patterns holding personal significance for their owners. Headrests from southern Africa, similar in design to the ones shown above, date as early as the 13th century AD. Examples of headrests have been found in Mali from as early as the 11th century AD and some of the earliest examples come from Egypt, which have been dated to around 2600 BC.

Traditionally, only mature men used such headrests. The curved surface of the headrest’s platform was designed to support the head of a sleeper lying on his side. By raising the head, the object served to keep a man’s elaborate braided hairstyle clean and in place during the night. This was particularly important as hairstyles often reflected their owner's age, gender, rank or status. They could also have spiritual charms adorning the hairstyle. Because of this it was seen as important to protect the hair.

Headrests were not, however, merely there to protect hairstyles. They were also seen to form a connection between the living and spiritual worlds. This is evident amongst the Shona tribe, Zimbabwe's largest indigenous group, who believe that when a person dreams, they are ‘walking’ with the ancestors. Historically the headrest was thought to act as a passage to the world of dreams and could allow the sleeper to communicate with ancestors and spirits. Indeed, spirit-mediums used headrests in rituals to enable them to contact the spirit world for guidance and information.

Headrests were often buried with the deceased, reflecting their importance. In other cases they would be passed on to a person’s heirs as a symbolic link to the family’s ancestral past.

Given my preference for a pillow so flat it resembles a pancake, I can’t imagine I’ll be using a headrest to aid my sleep anytime soon! I find it intriguing, however, that something that appears to be merely functional can have much more of a story to tell.

Not that we should ignore its function of protecting the hair. If I ever decide to go for that perm, I’ll know how to keep it looking as good as new!

Victoria Crook

It’s a nomad life

NB. The headrests shown above are all from Ethiopia and are price from £75 - £110. They are available at It's a nomad life.

It’s a nomad life, 14 Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury

Twitter @itsanomadlife




Vicky Vicky

Vicky runs local antiques business It's a nomad life with her partner Sam Handbury-Madin. The shop, which moved from Wyle Cop to Green Lane in 2015, sells Tribal and Asian art and collectables from around the world. Vicky is a Shropshire lass, who moved back to Shrewsbury in 2008 after time spent in Italy, London and St. Andrews (where she studied archaeology and ancient history). She met her husband Sam on her return and they opened It's a nomad life in 2012, combining their love of travel and old things! Vicky also works as a Freelance Fundraising Consultant.

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