An ancient Egyptian skeleton wearing a head cone.
An ancient Egyptian skeleton wearing a head cone.
Image: Amarna Project

For years, archaeologists have debated the existence of ancient Egyptian head cones. These objects are portrayed in Egyptian artworks, but not a single one has been found by archaeologists—until now.

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Ancient Egyptian head cones actually existed, according to a new paper published this week in the science journal Antiquity. The new research, led by archaeologist Anna Stevens from Monash University in Australia, suggests the adornments served an important funerary function: They were found atop the heads of two skeletons buried in a cemetery at the ancient Egyptian city of Akhetaten, now known as the Amarna site. Whether or not these head cones were worn in daily life is unknown, but the composition and design of the unusual objects strongly suggests this was the case.

Ancient Egyptian artworks sometimes feature characters wearing cone-shaped headgear. These representations, which appear as white, cap-like adornments and sometimes with decorative markings, have been chronicled in artowrk across 1,500 years of ancient Egyptian history, from 1549 to 30 BCE. These artworks include paintings and carvings of men and women attending rituals, banquets, while hunting, and in the afterlife.

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Examples of ancient Egyptian artworks with depictions of head cones.
Examples of ancient Egyptian artworks with depictions of head cones.
Image: Egypt Exploration Society

But because no head cones exist in the archaeological record—and because archaeologists are a stubborn, empirical bunch—an annoying question has remained unanswered over the years: Were these head cones actually real?

The artworks and the lack head cone artifacts led to a bunch of different theories, including the suggestion that the caps were analogous to later artworks depicting halos floating above the heads of Christian saints and other spiritual figures. These head cones, it was argued, were purely symbolic, not tangible artifacts.

Other archaeologists argued for their existence, offering a very good reason for why no head cone has ever been discovered: They were made from dissolvable materials, like wax or solid fats, which don’t preserve well over thousands of years. These caps, it was argued, served a functional rather than, or in addition to, an ornamental purpose. As the theory goes, the head cones were infused with greasy substances known as unguents and laden with perfumes such as myrrh. With the Egyptian Sun beating down on the wearer, the wax or fat would slowly melt, causing the pleasant smelling perfume to drip down onto the person’s hair and body.

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It’s a nice theory—one backed by ancient Egyptian texts—but without the requisite material evidence. Hence the importance of the new discovery made in Amarna, an archaeological site located 320 kilometers (200 miles) south of Cairo.

Artist’s depiction of a burial at an Amarna cemetery.
Artist’s depiction of a burial at an Amarna cemetery.
Illustration: Fran Weatherhead
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Located on the east bank of the Nile River, the site bears the remnants of a short-lived city built by the Pharaoh Akhenaten. The city, known as Akhetaten to the ancient Egyptians, served as home to worshippers of the Sun god Aten, who opted for a monotheistic approach to worship, casting aside the traditional polytheism embraced by most ancient Egyptians at the time. The city lasted for just 15 years, from 1347 to 1332 BCE, having been abandoned after the death of Akhenaten—the husband of Queen Nefertiti and the presumed father of King Tutankhamen. Akhetaten did not last long, but its inhabitants managed to build a city that encompassed several square kilometers, including four distinct cemeteries containing thousands of graves.

Unfortunately for archaeologists, these cemeteries are badly disturbed, having been pillaged by ancient looters. Since 2005, archaeologists from the Amarna Project, in cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, have been trying to make sense of these burials, particularly the graves of common folk. These excavations led to the discovery of two individuals buried with cones atop their heads: a woman who died in her 20s, and an adolescent or young adult whose sex could not be determined.

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Reconstruction of the two head cones.
Reconstruction of the two head cones.
Image: Amarna Project

The head cones were found as broken fragments, but the researchers managed to reconstruct their overall shape. A non-destructive spectroscopic analysis showed that the relics were hollow and made from wax, likely beeswax. The wax caps measured around 3 inches high and 4 inches wide.

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Importantly, no traces of unguents or perfumes were detected. This means the interpretation of the melting unguents could not be proven, but it wasn’t disproven, either.

Also, because the caps were found on the heads of deceased individuals, it’s still not clear if the head cones were worn by ancient Egyptians during normal daily life. But again, this hypothesis wasn’t disproven, either. Speaking to the New York Times, Egyptologist Dora Goldsmith from the Free University of Berlin said it “would be irrational to assume that unguent cones did not have a scent or that their function wasn’t to perfume its wearer,” pointing to ancient Egyptian artworks depicting zigzagged lines emanating from the cones, perhaps to suggest the presence of an odor.

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The remains of an ancient Egyptian, with head cone.
The remains of an ancient Egyptian, with head cone.
Image: Amarna Project

Indeed, as the authors pointed out in their study, unguents performed an important function in both daily life and for funerary purposes, so the notion that the cones were a delivery mechanism for perfumes remains valid.

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“Unguents were generally thought to purify the ancient Egyptian wearer, placing them in an elevated state of being when in the company of a divinity, or after death as the ‘justified Deceased,” wrote the authors in the study. “There is no reason to assume, however, that hollow—or perhaps textile-lined [or] stuffed—cones of wax were not also worn in life. Even if scented, they may not have been intended to melt [entirely] and moisturise, serving more to mark the wearer as someone who was in a purified, protected or otherwise ‘special’ state.”

Future discoveries could provide more evidence, particularly if head cones are found with perfumed material.

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Ancient Egyptian graves belonging to high-ranking dignitaries are obviously cool, but as this new discovery makes clear, the graves of everyday individuals can be equally fascinating.

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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