Through their hairstyles and wigs, still visible in art and preserved on mummies, much can be gleaned about the ancient Egyptians' fashion, health, diet and lifestyle across time.
If you ever get a chance to meet a group of ancient Egyptians, make sure to take a close look at their wigs. Even before a word is spoken, this will tell you almost everything you need to know about each person’s status, profession and sometimes even their religious affiliation; indeed, a person’s wig was part of his or her identity, regardless of gender, age or wealth. Certainly in ancient times, when clothing was generally plain linen, and lavish jewellery a preserve of the rich, hair was the most democratic form of adornment, capable of being enhanced and transformed in countless different ways.
Much of what we know about the hair of the ancient Egyptians derives from the careful study of their wall scenes and statuary; as today, hair fashions changed with time, allowing Egyptologists to establish a means of dating such artworks. Yet the best source of information is the ancient Egyptians themselves, whose mummified bodies reveal a great diversity of hairstyles; through scientific analysis, their hair is also able to provide information about ancient diet, health and lifestyle.
However, the ancient Egyptians’ love of ornate hairstyles was, nonetheless, affected by practical considerations, and in Egypt’s extreme climate both men and women often shaved off their hair as the most convenient option. A shaven head was also a religious requirement for some members of the clergy, who were shorn by barbers working in the temples. This practice was also commented on by the 5th-century BC Greek traveller Herodotus, who states that ‘Egyptian priests shave their bodies all over every other day to guard against lice’, whose presence would compromise their ritual purity. Although a linen head scarf would minimize the harmful effects of the sun, the optimum head covering was a wig, which meant that people could still display intricate hairstyles while remaining relatively cool, since the wig’s net-like foundation base would allow body heat to escape.
Wigs were made by trained professionals, with a ‘Royal Wigmaker and Hairdresser’ mentioned in texts as early as the Pyramid Age. The priesthood were served by similar individuals who held titles such as ‘overseer of wigmakers of Amun in Karnak’. Hairdressers are also shown at work in tomb scenes, styling, plaiting, combing and adding hair extensions.
Both wigs and extensions were made in specialized workshops, where tools of the trade included hairpins, combs and small bronze implements, which were used to wave and trim the hair, along with bronze razors. Yet the main material was human hair, which was either an individual’s own or acquired through
trade; indeed, hair was ranked alongside gold and incense in ancient accounts lists. It was from such hair that wigmakers created an assortment of braids, plaits or curls, to be woven or tied on to a net foundation base, itself made of finely plaited hair, and manufactured on a head-shaped wooden mount. The whole creation could then be coated in a warmed beeswax and resin ‘setting lotion’, which hardened on cooling; the melting point of beeswax (60–63°C or 140–145°F) made this method of securing the hair highly effective, even in Egypt’s extreme climate.
As replicated by historical wigmaker Filippo Salamone as part of the Ancient Adornments Project at the University of York, such construction techniques, combined with the great skill of the ancient hairdressers, produced wigs of a standard equivalent to modern examples. Their lightweight construction also made them equally easy to wear, although hair extensions attached to the natural hair would have proved a more secure option for those employed in more active professions, such as acrobats and dancers.
THE EARLIEST HAIR EXTENSIONS
During our investigations over the past 30 years, one of the most fascinating examples of an Egyptian hairstyle studied was also one of the oldest. Dating back to ca. 3400 BC, and found in the plundered burial of a middle-aged woman from the workers’ cemetery at Hierakonpolis (Kom el-Ahmar), the scattered fragments of the deceased’s hair revealed her original style to be the result of many hours’ work undertaken by someone other than the lady herself, for her natural shoulder-length hair had been filled out with hair extensions – the earliest examples of false hair yet found in Egypt. This find became even more significant when we discovered that the woman’s own greying brown hair had been dyed with henna (Lawsonia inermis), a plant dye used throughout the Pharaonic Period and later by men and women, kings and commoners alike.
THE HAIR AND WIGS OF ROYALTY AND NOBLES
Among styles of varying complexity and colour, the fragmentary wigs discovered at the Abydos burial site of Egypt’s earliest pharaohs revealed the same impressive lengths as the long hair visible on the statuary of Egypt’s earliest pyramid builder, King Djoser (ca. 2650 BC). At the later court of King Montuhotep II (ca. 2000 BC), his ‘Great Royal Wife’, Ashayet, had worn her shoulder-length hair in many fine plaits, while at least one royal soldier had supplemented his own hair with short extensions; in a time before the introduction of helmets,his hair would be his only protection! Yet, in addition to the carefully styled hair found on mummified bodies, wigs are also discovered in burials, often in purpose-made wig boxes, such as that found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, along with the artificially curled ringlets that once made up his wig. Tutankhamen’s great-grandfather Yuya had also been buried with both a wig and a wig box.
The finest wig so far discovered was found inside a reed wig box in a tomb at the workers’ village of Deir el-Medina. Composed entirely of human hair, with light brown curls set over an under-section of several hundred dark brown plaits, it is the best example of the ‘double’ (or ‘duplex’) style favoured by male officials like Yuya. Its frequent misidentifcation as ‘a noblewoman’s wig’ reﬂects a tendency to assign anything vaguely decorative as having belonged to a woman, even though, in reality, women’s wigs were usually less elaborate than those owned by men, and so appear more natural. Some women, like the princess Hentempet (ca. 1500 BC), were buried with wigs of different styles, although the best preserved example of the long, full (or ‘enveloping’) style was found inside the tall wooden wig box of Meryt in the Deir el-Medina tomb she shared with her husband Kha (ca. 1400 BC). Along with its numerous crimped braids of dark brown hair, recreated in the recent BBC television series about Meryt and her husband, she had also been buried with a small box of plaited hair extensions of the type used to fill out the natural hair of the elderly queens Tetisheri and Ahmose-Nefertari. Similar braids were also used by Hatnefer, mother of Hatshepsut’s official Senenmut, whose short grey curls had been extended by attaching tapered plaits of dark brown hair. Arranged in two thick masses at each side of her head, the ends of these plaits had been set in rounded sections to create the curled, bouffant style associated with Hathor, the goddess of beauty. Also known as ‘She of the Beautiful Hair’ and ‘Lady of the Lock’, Hathor’s devotees sometimes attached a triple set of hair extensions at the back of the head as a kind of ‘badge of office’. Wigs were also a key item of clerical attire, and are best represented by a group of huge ‘ceremonial wigs’, discovered at Deir el-Bahari, which belonged to priests of the 21st Dynasty (ca. 1000 BC). Now in Cairo Museum, each is made of human hair set in a combination of curls and plaits, although small bundles of date palm fibre had also been used as internal padding to create their impressive dimensions, allowing the manufacturer to economise on hair. This was also the case with a wig of similar date composed entirely of ‘black string’ set in spirals, found at the head of the mummy of Queen Henttawy (ca. 1050 BC).
FROM ANCIENT TO MODERN
As styles continued to evolve during the first millennium BC, natural hair became increasingly fashionable, and by the time of Egypt’s Greek pharaohs, the Ptolemies (305–30 BC), some women were covering their hair, following Greek and Near Eastern practice. In the case of the last Ptolemaic pharaoh, the great Cleopatra, who may well have been a redhead, her classical-style portraits show her with hair swept up in a bun at the back of the head, a popular style, secured in place by the same hairpins shown on Roman mummy portraits and found in the hair of mummified women.
Yet wigs were still being manufactured in Roman Egypt, and although the most elaborate examples were made entirely of date palm fibre or grass, human hair was still used to create smaller hairpieces such as the ‘orbis’. This rigid crescent of hair, designed to be worn over the forehead, is portrayed frequently in sculpture from across the Roman empire, although the only known example was found at the Egyptian site of Gurob by archaeologist Flinders Petrie.
In later Roman times, when Egypt had become a Christian country, hair styles changed in response to the teachings of St. Paul, who stated that men should keep their hair short, while it was ‘a woman’s glory to have long hair’, adding that this should nonetheless be kept covered. The most popular female hair coverings in Coptic Egypt were the caps, nets and wraps made of a stretchy fabric known as ‘sprang’; a colourful example from Hawara was found still covering the hair of its female owner, it having been pulled down over her eyes before her burial.
Of course, since the Arab conquest, Egyptian men have tended to keep their hair short, while women still use scarves and veils to cover their hair, and in some cases their faces; burqas and niqabs have been discovered at Quseir el-Qadim on the Red Sea coast dating from ca. AD 1250. With these past forms of adornment still playing an important role in Egypt’s modern society, it is clear that hair and its treatment can tell us a great deal about Egypt’s past peoples, if only we pay it as much attention as they themselves so obviously did.
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Joann Fletcher professor at the University of York, is a founder member of the University’s Mummy Research Group and ‘Ancient Adornments Project’. Specialising in human remains, her PhD thesis Ancient Egyptian Hair: a Study in Style, Form and Function was obtained in 1995. Her most recent book Cleopatra the Great was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2008, and she is currently filming her next series about ancient Egypt for the BBC.