History of Wigs In Ancient Egypt

The hair of the ancient Egyptians has only relatively recently become the subject of long-term, serious study after long being regarded as a rather “frivolous” subject when compared to the texts and chronologies pored over by generations of learned men. Unfortunately such an attitude created something of an imbalance in Egyptology, and although of immense importance, literary evidence is by no means the only way to understand a culture. And given literacy rates of less than 1%, it can hardly be the best way to study the lives of the ancient Egyptians themselves.

Yet this of course depends on whom one imagines the Egyptians to be. Certainly for many scholars, ancient Egypt seems to have been populated by a literate male elite of kings, priests and scribes while the silent majority have simply been dismissed as little more than illiterate “peasants”.

But these same “peasants” who built the monuments and produced the wealth on which the culture was based deserve to be the subject of serious study too, regardless of their ability to produce convenient written evidence. As an alternative source of information the remains of the people themselves provide a wealth of evidence, with Egypt’s democratic climate preserving both the artificially mummified bodies of the elite and the remains of the poorest individuals. Simply buried in the sand, the hot dry conditions promoted natural mummification by allowing the fluids responsible for decomposition to drain away while at the same time desiccating and preserving the soft tissue of skin, hair and nails. Not only were these features subject to various forms of adornment, they also contain a great deal of information which can be extracted using virtually nondestructive techniques of analysis.

With scientific research becoming increasingly detailed, each part of the body is beginning to tell its own fascinating story. This is particularly the case with hair, which Egyptians of all social groups treated in a wide variety of ways for a wide variety of reasons. The way they chose to portray it and the resulting development of hair styles can also be used to establish a useful chronology for the whole dynastic period, which can then be compared to the various types of hair remains that have survived.

Yet it is clear from both the archaeological remains and the artistic and literary record that the Egyptians’ hair was not always their own, a choice dependent on personal preference, wealth and social status and influenced by the fashions which inevitably changed over several millennia. The wigs and hair extensions worn as items of both daily and funerary attire combined the desire for ornate and impressive styles with the practicalities of cleanliness. In Egypt’s extreme climate, the coolest option of a shaven or cropped head could be shielded from the harmful effects of the sun with a wig, a choice preferable to a simple linen head cloth as it would allow body heat to escape through its net-like foundation base while keeping the head protected. The removal of the natural hair and subsequent adoption of wigs was also a hygienic measure and greatly reduced the health risks associated with parasitic infestation, particularly head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis).

Indeed, the Greek historian Herodotus stated that “Egyptian priests shave their bodies all over every other day to guard against the presence of lice, or anything else equally unpleasant, while they are about their religious duties.”

The hair used in the construction of wigs and hair extensions was human, and was either an individual’s own hair or had been traded for, hair itself being a valuable commodity ranked alongside gold and incense in account lists from the town of Kahun. Once the required amounts of hair had been collected, it would be sorted into lengths and any tangles removed with fine-toothed combs which also removed any lice eggs, traces of which can still sometimes be found between their teeth. Using an impressive array of hairdressing tools, the wig makers would then work the prepared lengths of hair into an assortment of braids, plaits or curls depending upon the style required, with each piece coated in a warmed beeswax and resin fixative mixture which would harden when cooled. Since the melting point of beeswax is 140°–145°F, this method of securing the hair would have been effective even in Egypt’s extreme climate.

Hairdressing scene of Queen Nefru, 11th Dynasty, Deir el-Bahari, Brooklyn Museum.
Photo copyright Dr. Joann Fletcher.

The individual locks or braids could then be attached directly to the natural hair in the form of extensions, or alternatively they could be used to create a whole wig by fastening the individual sections of hair onto a mesh-type foundation base manufactured on a head-shaped wooden mount. Although linen strings or leather strips were occasionally employed in its construction, the base was most often made from fine lengths of plaited or woven hair. The separate locks could then be attached by weaving them directly into wefts of hair which in turn formed part of the net base, or alternatively knotting them into position.

A further method was to attach each lock by looping its root end around a part of the net and pressing it back on itself, securing it by winding a smaller substrand of hair around it and applying a further coating of the beeswax and resin mixture. Such construction techniques and the obvious skill of the wig makers themselves produced wigs of a standard often equivalent to modern examples, and despite continued speculation that their weight might be sufficient to cause parietal thinning of the skull(!), their lightweight construction would have made them as equally easy to wear.

Our recent discoveries at the manual workers’ cemetery at Hierakonpolis reveal the use of hair extensions as early as 3400 BCE5, with the earliest fragments of actual wigs dated to the very beginning of the dynastic period. These have been found in relatively large numbers at the Umm el-Qa’ab necropolis at Abydos and, despite their fragmentary nature, nevertheless reveal highly complex construction techniques that involved lengths of hair weft to which a wide variety of curls, ringlets and plaits were attached.

Although there are relatively few “hair finds” from the Old Kingdom, the 11th Dynasty necropolis at Deir el-Bahari has produced a wealth of fascinating examples relating to the court of Mentuhotep II (c. 2061-2010 BCE). Several of the king’s wives were discovered in a wonderful state of preservation, including his 20-year-old “Great Royal Wife”, Ashayet, whose own short, bobbed hair had been set in numerous fine plaits. The ends of each had been secured with a drop of resin fixative and her natural dark brown color had been enhanced with an application of dark brown vegetable colorant. Yet perhaps the most interesting example was found in the mass grave of the king’s soldiers, one of whom was found to have supplemented his own hair with short curled extensions of false hair. Since his burial seems to have been hastily carried out following battle, this cannot be explained as a post-mortem feature and must have been worn in life, supporting the theory that hair was the soldier’s only protection prior to the introduction of helmets.

The oldest intact wigs also date from this period, the earliest of which would appear to be that found in the tomb of the priestess Amunet. Wigs were also discovered within their wooden storage boxes in a number of 12th Dynasty tombs around the cemetery site of el-Lisht, and despite their poor state of preservation they all appear to have been made of human hair coated in a resinous fixative substance. By the New Kingdom, the range of wigs and false braids that have survived reflect the large number of styles fashionable at the time for both men and women. A particularly fine example from Thebes and now in the British Museum Man’s double-style wig, New Kingdom, Thebes, British Museum,is composed entirely of human hair set in two distinct sections: an upper part of light brown curls set over an under section of several hundred dark brown plaits which originally measured up to 38cm (14.96 inches) in length.

This is clearly an example of the “double” (or “duplex”) style so favored by male officials and noblemen of the period, but repeated references to “a noblewoman’s wig” reflect a tendency to assign anything vaguely decorative as having belonged to a woman.

A similar unproven example of slightly later New Kingdom date, now in Berlin, again features this arrangement of curls and plaits set on a net base, with a further fragmentary example of the same double style formed by the portions of Yuya’s wig found in his tomb (KV 46) in the Valley of the Kings. An intriguing sample of “artificially curled ringlets”, suggestive of a shorter wig, was discovered in a small calcite chest among the funerary equipment of Yuya’s probable great-grandson, Tutankhamun. The Nubian fan bearer, Maherpra, was also buried in the Royal Valley, but in contrast to the previous highly artificial styles he wore a unique coiffure of short tight spirals of his own heliotrichous (Negroid) hair set over his shaven head, creating the impression of a totally natural style.

It is also quite apparent that women’s wigs were considerably less elaborate than those worn by men and consequently appear more natural. The best preserved example of the long full style so favored by New Kingdom women was found inside the tall wooden wig box of Meryt in the Deir el-Medina tomb she shared with her husband Kha. It is made of numerous wavy braids of dark brown hair a little over 50cm (19.68 inches) long, set by means of complex knot work around the narrow plait which forms a central parting. A similar wig of long plaits was found on the head of the mummy of the princess Hontempet who had also been provided with a second wig, made up of artificially curled locks complete with a fringe of small ringlets.

he wig of Hontempet and the mummy of Nofretari.

In addition to complete wigs, individual braids were employed to create wider and longer dimensions. The hair of a man buried at el-Mustagidda had been artificially lengthened with human hair attached to his own hair with thread, while the wavy brown hair of Queen Meryet-Amun had been filled out around the crown and temples with numerous tapered braids to produce the “top-heavy” effect fashionable at the time. She had also been buried with a duplicate set of braids as part of her funerary equipment, and similar sets of false braids were found in the burials of the female relatives of Hatshepsut’s great official Senenmut. A large number of tapered plaits of dark brown human hair had been attached to the short grey curls of his mother, Hatnefer and, arranged in two thick masses at each side of her head, the ends had been set in two rounded sections to create the so-called “Hathor” curled, bouffant style featured in artistic representation.

False braids could also be worn to denote religious affiliation, with devotees of the goddess Hathor sometimes attaching a triple strand of braids at the back of the head. And on a more practical level, such braids could also be used to disguise areas of baldness most often caused by old age. The mummy identified as Queen Tetisheri was found to have substantial plaits of brown hair woven into her own sparse white locks, and a similar technique had been employedby the hairdressers of Queen Ahmose-Nofretari and Hontimihou.

Wigs clearly remained high status items during the Third Intermediate Period, with the double style well represented by the enormous wigs on display in the Cairo Museum that were discovered in the Deir el-Bahri cache of priests’ mummies discovered in 1881. One such wig was found inside a box bearing the seals of High Priest Menkheperre, and despite its huge double-part structure of curls and plaits, it was assumed to have belonged to his wife, Istemkheb. Yet the wig that was recently identified as hers is much smaller, a simply creation of curls and typical of the short, feminine styles of the time. A further seven huge examples of the male double style from the same cache again exhibit the two-part construction of curls and plaits of human hair, although small bundles of date palm fiber were used as an internal padding in order to create impressive dimensions while economizing on hair.

The same trend can be found in the construction of many of the women’s wigs of the period, the dark brown plaits of Queen Nodjmet’s wig being described as being “tied to strings” to form the foundation base. Linen was also employed as the base for the plaited hair which made up the wig of Nany, Chantress of Amun-Ra, while a wig composed entirely of “black string” set in narrow spirals was found at the head of Queen Hentawy.

Despite losing popularity during the Late Period, the fashion for wigs was revived during Roman times. Although the most elaborate examples were again made entirely of date palm fibre or grass, hair was still used in the production of other wigs and smaller hairpieces. A section of plaited hair set in a rigid crescent shape and supported by 62 bronze pins was found at the settlement site of Gurob, and known as an “orbis”, was described as “probably the only example surviving of a well-known hairdressing of the period of Trajan”.

Short curled wig of Istemkheb, 21st Dynasty,Deir el-Bahari cache (DB 320), Cairo Museum.
Photo copyright Dr. Joann Fletcher.

Despite such wonderful examples of the hairdresser’s art, it seems surprising that hair had never received the detailed treatment it so obviously deserved. When not ignored altogether, it had tended to be misinterpreted, as exemplified by the way in which many archaeologists and curators often assume that all hair fragments are “wigs” when closer examination can reveal that this is simply not the case.

Rather more disturbing are the attempts to use hair to prove assumptions of race and gender, one of the most extreme examples involving the 1888 Gurob excavations of Sir W.M. Flinders Petrie. Having discovered a body of unspecified sex, he noted that the head was covered by “a copious wig of black hair, reaching down to the waist, but beneath this on the scalp was yellow or light brown hair”. He goes on to conclude that “the person was light-haired during life, and wore a wig of black, hiding the foreign token” … an interesting comment given Petrie’s attempts to find evidence to support his theories of Aegean settlers. Yet our analysis of the “black wig” has shown that it originally formed part of a dark blue woven head cover, and far from disguising his or her fair hair, the individual in question had actually accentuated its lightness with a yellow vegetable colorant.

Unfortunately, such attitudes have by no means disappeared and there is still the tendency to assume that bodies with short or shaven hair are male and those with long or intricately styled hair are female, when again this is simply not the case. Human hair was treated in a wide variety of ways for an equally wide variety of reasons, and so all aspects should be carefully considered.

First and foremost it is necessary to ascertain the precise nature of the hair in question and decide if it is the natural scalp hair, albeit desiccated and possibly separated from the scalp itself. Alternatively, the hair could be described as “false”, i.e. originally part of a wig or separate extensions. There is also the possibility that the hair could be one of the many votive or funerary deposits buried separately from the body, a practice found from Pre-dynastic to Roman times despite its frequent omission from excavation reports.

Once the nature of the sample has been established, it is then possible to undertake examination using a variety of techniques, all of which can provide some incredible details about the individual in question, from their general state of health and quality of diet to their social status and even profession. A simple visual examination can establish basic facts such as condition, color and length, evidence of styling techniques and any parasitic infestation, particularly the presence of head lice capable of transmitting diseases such as typhus and relapsing fever and so useful in the study of disease transmission, we have found evidence for lice in the hair of kings and commoners alike, demonstrating that lice are no respecters of social status. And contrary to popular belief, they much prefer clean short hair which gives easy access to the scalp’s blood supply on which they must feed five times each day in order to survive. Their presence in hair samples can also be used to confirm the identification of natural hair rather than a wig, since lice can only thrive in the natural hair rather than in a wig which could be removed at any time and thus proving a totally unsuitable habitat. Such parasitic infestations can be examined in greater detail using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) which is also used to look at the surface of the hair shaft to identify and distinguish between animal hair of different species and human hair of varying ethnic types and individuals.

The hair of the mummified “Elder Woman” found in the tomb of Amenhotep II (KV 35) has been identified as Queen Tiy after scanning electron microprobe analysis and ion etching were used to compare a sample of the mummy’s hair with a lock of the queen’s hair found in an inscribed coffinette in the tomb of her probable grandson, Tutankhamun.

Further examination of the hair’s surface structure can also help to ascertain the original hair color which may have faded over time, been changed by environmental conditions, the process of mummification or by the use of dyes which we have found in a number of samples and extracted and identified by absorption spectrophotometry and thin-layer chromatography. Microscopic examination of the hair ends can also reveal details of specific styling techniques, with recent analysis having revealed the use of very sharp blades to cut the hair as early as c. 3000 BCE. SEM can also indicate the individual’s health, with specific areas of interest followed up using trace element analysis to provide information regarding diet and nutritional deficiencies, diseases, levels of environmental pollution and even the use of drugs and poisons which remain in the hair shaft long after they have left the rest of the body. And almost all of this is possible using a single hair as a biopsy material or a sample size of <0.1mg, literally the size of a pin head. Over the past few years, careful examination of various hair samples has provided much fascinating information. In 1998 the plundered burial of a middle-aged woman from the pre-dynastic workers’ cemetery at Hierakonpolis proved particularly revealing after numerous scattered fragments of skull and hair were reconstructed to allow us to recreate her original hairstyle. This was clearly the result of many hours’ work undertaken by someone other than the lady in question, her natural hair of slightly more than shoulder-length having been turned into an imposing crest-like coiffure using numerous hair extensions, providing the earliest evidence of false hair yet found in Egypt. The find was even more significant when we discovered that the woman’s graying brown hair had been dyed either shortly before death or as a post-mortem treatment, the dye turning the brown parts auburn while transforming the unpigmented white hairs bright orange. Those familiar with the vegetable dye henna (Lawsonia inermis) will recognize its characteristic effect, and indeed henna shrubs still grow at the site and continue to be used for the same purpose by the local population. They kindly showed us where the best leaves were to be found and, allowing us to help ourselves, they demonstrated the heavy stone they use to grind them to a fine powder which is mixed with water to color the hair, skin and nails. Inspired, we decided to undertake comparative tests using modern hair samples kindly supplied by members of our team, and our tests replicated exactly the effects observed in these ancient samples. Our most recent field season, earlier this year at the site of the mysterious royal tomb KV 39 in the Valley of the Kings, revealed more wonderful hair finds, with the remains of at least four carefully plaited wigs of early 18th Dynasty date demonstrating a range of shades from the darkest brown to a mid-brown, almost blond color which may once again be the result of vegetable dyes. Although we have only just begun our work on these finds, the ongoing results are continuing to provide clues to previously unanswered questions, not only regarding the hair but also the nails, soft tissue and indeed the linen mummy wrappings and mummification materials which are being studied in detail. As the most modern analytical techniques are starting to reveal the secrets of these ancient people, it is well worth remembering that what at first may appear as nothing very special can often have an interesting tale to tell, if only we pay such material as much attention as the ancient Egyptians themselves so obviously did. Written by Dr. Joann Fletcher. She specializes in human remains which she has studied in museum collections around the world and on site in Egypt, Yemen and South America.[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][/et_pb_section]

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