Wax head cones

The actual existance of wax cones or perfume cones has long been debated in Egyptology. Visual representations from ancient Egypt showing cone-shaped items on the heads of individuals can be found numeroursly on the walls of tombs. However untill recently, apart from these depictions, no real wax cone had ever been found in Egypt. In the tell el-Amarna South Tombs Cemetery and the North Tombs Cemetery however, two wax cones were discovered. This led to the research of the chemical compounds in november 2018 and the publication of these results in December 2019 in Antiquity journal. One of the cones was discovered by the archaeologists in the field, the other one I found between the remains of an individual's hair. An amazing find altogether!

© Amarna Project

The first cone was already excavated in 2010 from the grave of a woman who was approximately 20–29 years old (individual 150). Spectroscopic analyses showed us that the primary constituent of the cone is a biological wax, and not fat or incense as is sometimes speculated. The methods used for this analysis was DRIFTS (Diffuse Reflectance Infrared Fourier Transform Spectroscopy) and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF). Both analyses can be executed with a portable instrument and are non-destructive.

A preliminary report has already been written on the cone in Horizon, the newsletter of the Amarna Poject, number 7, page 3. You can follow the link here for the online newsletter Horizon.

© Amarna Project

© Museo Egizio Torino.

The nature and role of the cones have often been debated in Egyptology. Some say that the cone is a lump of perfumed unguent that was placed on the head of people as they - for instance - attended a banquet. As the cone melted, the wax dripped down and both scented and cleansed the hair and body of the wearer. Because the cones were never actually discovered, it remained a debate whether or not the Egyptians merely depicted them as a symbols. This find of course tells us otherwise. As a ritual practice, the cones may have been used for anointing the body during mortuary rituals. Joan Padgham has shown in her book on the subject that the cones were symbols closely associated with the ancient Egyptian ba spirit. On the image here, a wax cone is caried on a bowl during a procession.

In anthropological research conducted by Egyptologist Louis Keimer in the 1950's in the Egyptian Eastern Desert with the Beja nomads, he described that people wore cones of fatty material on their heads. And even in contemporary African cultures (for instance with the Raya people, Ethiopia), fat cones are worn on the heads as well as you can see in the photograph on the left made by Eric Lafforgue. Of course, the reaon for wearing these cones (in this case during the honeymoon of the wearer) and the material (a butter mixture) are completely different from the material and reason these cones were used in ancient times. However, it does show us that the idea of wearing a fat cone in your hair that will melt and drip down your hair and head is not strange or unlikely at all.

Should you like to support the archaeological research of the Amarna Project you can follow this link.

© Eric Lafforgue

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