National Geographic shares new clues to an age-old puzzle, deciphering what exactly the cone-shaped objects on some people’s heads really were in ancient Egyptian paintings – and whether they were real objects at all:
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can read more about the head-cone research here, in Antiquity.