Ancient Egyptian art is filled with images of reverent revelers with pointy cones on their heads. Men and women are shown with head cones in artistic depictions on everything from papyrus scrolls to coffins, donning the pointed objects as they take part in royal feasts and divine rituals. Women who wear the cones are sometimes also portrayed in childbirth, an activity associated with certain gods.
But while the head cones were relatively common in Egyptian art for more than a thousand years, their purpose and existence has remained a mystery. No archaeologist had ever excavated one of the enigmatic objects, leading some scholars to think of Egyptian head cones as merely symbolic representations—the equivalent of the halos that appear on saints and angels in Christian iconography.
Now it appears that an international team of archaeologists have indeed found the first physical evidence for the elusive head accessories, according to a new paper published in the journal Antiquity,
The discovery comes from the cemeteries of Amarna, an ancient Egyptian city whose temples were erected by Akhenaten, a pharaoh thought to be King Tutankhamun’s father. Hastily built in the 14th century B.C. and significant for just about 15 years, the city was home to roughly 30,000 people. Only about ten percent were wealthy elite who were buried in opulent tombs; the rest were ordinary folks who were interred in modest burials. It was in these burials, which generally don’t contain much of value, where members of the Amarna Project, a University of Cambridge-led project with funding from the National Geographic Society and other institutions, initially found the remains of head cones back in 2009.
While it’s been a decade since the excavations, Anna Stevens, an archaeologist at Monash University who is assistant director of the Amarna Project and co-director of ongoing research at the city’s non-elite cemeteries, remembers the day the first cone was found. “I think I’ve got one of those head cones!” a coworker, Mary Shepperson, called out. When Stevens went to investigate, she saw a telltale point above the skull of a female skeleton.
“It was obviously very, very different, not something we’d seen in any burials before,” Stevens says. But the pointy object was very similar to the odd head decoration in Egyptian art that some scholars had dismissed as a piece of artistic folly. Another adult burial, which couldn’t be identified as male or female, turned up an additional head cone.
It took scholars nearly a decade to secure funding and complete a substantial examination of the head cones, giving them a chance to test another popular theory about the unusual objects: The head cones were actually solid lumps of perfumed fat that melted over the heads of their wearers and acted as a sort of ancient, fragranced hair gel.
The findings from Amarna seem to negate the ancient styling product theory. The cones weren’t solid—they were hollow shells folded around brown-black organic matter the team thinks may be fabric. Both head cones had chemical signatures of decayed wax; the team concluded they were made of beeswax, the only biological wax known to be used by ancient Egyptians. Furthermore, no traces of wax were found in the hair of the most well-preserved skeleton.
Given artistic associations of the objects with childbirth, and the fact that at least one of the specimens was an adult woman, the team suggests the cones had something to do with fertility. But the fact that they were found in a non-elite cemetery makes it difficult to interpret the meaning behind them.
In Egyptian iconography, the people depicted wearing the head cones were mostly elite, though some seem to have been servants, says Nicola Harrington, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney. The Amarna tombs have less artwork than other burial sites, but a handful of images show people wearing the cones as they prepare for burials and make offerings. “Essentially, [the cones] are worn in the presence of the divine,” she says.
Harrington has her own theory for the identities of the cone-wearing women: Perhaps they were dancers. Both specimens had spinal fractures, and one had a degenerative joint disease. Though bone problems could be chalked up to stressful lives and the intense labor of non-elite Egyptians, Harrington points out that stress and compression fractures are common among professional dancers. Perhaps the cones “marked [dancers] as members of a community that served the gods,” she says. That could explain why these people were buried with the cones, Harrington suggests, despite their “basic burials.”
Without more archaeological evidence, though, there’s no way to know how the cones were really used—or if they were used more widely. Unfortunately, says Stevens, we may never find out. “In the very early days of Egyptology, the work was very rushed, a bit haphazard,” she says. Today’s more careful archaeological techniques will hopefully protect and identify head cones in future excavations, but their presence in earlier burials may have been overlooked completely.
But even if these cones are the only two that have survived to today, the chance discovery still has value. Archaeologists know a lot about elite in ancient Egypt from administrative records and elaborately painted tombs, but the dearth of written and artistic records of non-elite Egyptians makes their lives a lot more mysterious to modern researchers. That lack of information about the lives of the majority of people who lived in ancient Egypt makes this find even more precious—and serves as a reminder of the millions of buried stories that are still untold.