Head Cones in Ancient Egyptian Graves Cap Archaeological Debate

Painted throughout ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are scenes of people at boisterous banquets. On top of the dark, braided heads of some revelers sat peculiar white cones. Archaeologists have long puzzled over the purpose of the mysterious headgear, and whether they were real items worn by people, or just iconographic ornaments, like halos crowning saints in Christian artwork.

Now, a team of archaeologists has uncovered — for the first time — two of the “head cones” in the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna, nearly 200 miles south of Cairo. The cones were made of wax and dated from 1347 to 1332 B.C.E. when Egypt was ruled by the pharaoh Akhenaten, husband to Queen Nefertiti and the supposed father of King Tutankhamen. The finding, which was published Tuesday in the journal Antiquity, provides the first evidence the cones were actual objects and indicates they served some funerary function.

Corina Rogge, a conservation scientist from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and an author on the study, said it was very satisfying “to finally be able to say that the head cones are real.”

Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo, who was not involved in the study, called it, “an amazing discovery that has been archaeometrically confirmed.”

Dr. Rogge’s colleagues found the first cream-colored head cone in 2010 while excavating a grave. The second emerged in 2015 from a jumbled up skeleton in a grave that had been ravaged by tomb robbers. Both graves belonged to people who were not elites, and the first belonged to a woman. The cones were hollow, measured about 3 inches tall and just under 4 inches wide and were made of wax, presumably beeswax.

Because the head cones were found within graves, the team said the findings provided insight into their funerary roles.

“The obvious suggestion here is that they helped the deceased to be reborn into the afterlife, or brought them benefit once there,” said Anna Stevens, an archaeologist from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and lead author of the study. “But this doesn’t mean that they always served this purpose — they may have had multiple roles.”

Some archaeologists have argued that the main role of the cones, which have been featured on tomb walls from the Eighteenth Dynasty around 1550 B.C.E through the time of Cleopatra, was to act as perfumed unguents. Under the intense Egyptian heat, the scented wax cone would melt into the wearer’s hair or wig, providing a sweet aroma to the wearer. So far, the team’s findings do not confirm that interpretation, and alas, hieroglyphics are not scratch and sniff.

“We couldn’t detect any trace of perfume in these cones,” said Dr. Stevens. “But that doesn’t indicate that perfume wasn’t once present in these cones or others.”

Dora Goldsmith, a doctoral student at the Free University of Berlin, who researches the role of scents in ancient Egypt, said that even though the team did not detect smells on the wax head cones, there is clear iconographic evidence in hieroglyphics of zigzagged lines emanating from the cones as if depicting a scent coming from the object.

“It would be irrational to assume that unguent cones did not have a scent or that their function wasn’t to perfume its wearer,” she said.

Robyn Price, a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles, who also researches scents from ancient Egypt, agreed, adding that the two cones the team found might have also acted as the visible representation of scent in the afterlife, long after the smells dissipated.

“In doing so, they would preserve that deceased individual’s connection to divinity,” she said, “because if you smell like a god then you will be accepted as one who belongs among them.”