Look closely at paintings of ancient Egyptians and you might spot something strange: cones the size of a coffee cup sitting atop some of their heads. The objects have long baffled archaeologists, many of whom have wondered whether they were merely a symbol. Now, a new study finds these “head cones” were indeed real: Researchers have recovered two of the curious accoutrements in burials dating back 3300 years.
Archaeologists made the discoveries at Akhetaten, one of ancient Egypt’s most unusual cities. The site was occupied for no more than about 15 years during the 14th century B.C.E. while Egypt was under the rule of the pharaoh who gave the location its name, Akhenaten. He developed a short-lived (and, in the eyes of later pharaohs, heretical) religious system focused on the worship of a single god, represented by the Sun. He may also have been Tutankhamun’s father.
The two head cones come from low-status graves in a workers’ cemetery. One grave was much better preserved than the other, which had been rifled through by grave robbers. Both bodies still carried full heads of hair, each with a head cone tangled up in the tresses, the team reports today in Antiquity. The cones were cream-colored and seemed to be made of beeswax; both were about 8 centimeters tall. They were also in poor condition, full of holes where insects had tunneled through them.
The discoveries may help put to rest the symbolism theory—the idea that the cones were simply a way for artists to denote a wearer’s special status, like the halos used to signify holiness in Christian art.
But the discovery also potentially undermines another leading hypothesis about the cones: that they were perfumed lumps of unguent that slowly melted in the Sun to perfume and cleanse the body, both literally and spiritually. The idea is that, “by melting and ‘cleansing’ the hair, the cones might have ritually purified the individual, placing them in an appropriate state to participate in rituals,” says team leader Anna Stevens of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
But the team could find no chemical evidence from the well-preserved grave that the head cone had melted and dribbled onto the occupant’s hair.
This doesn’t necessarily disprove the unguent theory, says Lise Manniche, an archaeologist at the University of Copenhagen. She says ancient artwork suggests cones were generally worn by members of the upper classes, not by the sort of people buried in the workers’ cemetery. “I would interpret the two cones as ‘dummy cones,’ used by less fortunate inhabitants in the city” to imitate high-status fashion, she says.
If so, the cones may have been about more than simply mimicking the social elite. Some archaeologists think the objects signified sensuality and childbirth. It may thus be significant that the Egyptian in the well-preserved grave was a woman of child-bearing age, Stevens says. Perhaps, she speculates, the woman hoped the head cone would enhance her fertility in the afterlife.
But Rune Nyord, an archaeologist at Emory University in Atlanta, is skeptical. He points out that Egyptian art suggests head cones were worn in other contexts, too, such as at festival banquets or in the presence of the pharaoh. “Explanations invoking the afterlife are … common … in Egyptology,” he says, but we shouldn’t ignore the possibility that Egyptians didn’t see the head cones this way. Sometimes, a hat is just a hat.