By Owen Jarus, Live Science Contributor | September 17, 2014
More than 3,300 years ago, in a newly built city in Egypt, a woman with an incredibly elaborate hairstyle of lengthy hair extensions was laid to rest.
She was not mummified, her body simply being wrapped in a mat. When archaeologists uncovered her remains they found she wore “a very complex coiffure with approximately 70 extensions fastened in different layers and heights on the head,” writes Jolanda Bos, an archaeologist working on the Amarna Project, in an article recently published in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology.
Researchers don’t know her name, age or occupation, but she is one of hundreds of people, including many others whose hairstyles are still intact, who were buried in a cemetery near an ancient city now called Amarna.
This city was constructed as a new capital of Egypt by Akhenaten (reign ca. 1353-1335 B.C.), a pharaoh who unleashed a religious revolution that saw the Aten, a deity shaped as a sun disk, assume supremacy in Egyptian religion. Akhenaten ordered that Amarna be constructed in the desert and that images of some of Egypt’s other gods be destroyed. Amarna was abandoned shortly after Akhenaten’s death, and today archaeologists supported by the Amarna Trust are investigating all aspects of the ancient city, including the hairstyles its people wore.
Bos is leading the hairstyle research, and the woman with 70 extensions leaves her puzzled.
"Whether or not the woman had her hair styled like this for her burial only is one of our main research questions," said Bos in an email to Live Science. "The hair was most likely styled after death, before a person was buried. It is also likely, however, that these hairstyles were used in everyday life as well and that the people in Amarna used hair extensions in their daily life."
Many of the other skulls Bos analyzed also had hair extensions. One skull had extensions made of gray and dark black hair suggesting multiple people donated their hair to create extensions.
As Bos analyzed a selection of 100 recently excavated skulls (of which 28 still had hair) from the Armana cemetery, she noticed the people who lived in the ancient city had a wide variety of hair types. They range “from very curly black hair, to middle brown straight,” she noted in the journal article, something “that might reflect a degree of ethnic variation.”
Those skulls with brown hair often had rings or coils around their ears, a style that was popular at Amarna, she found. Why people in this city liked it is unknown. “We still have no idea. This is of course one of the answers we are still trying to find from the record,” said Bos in the email.
People in the city also seemed to be fond of braids. “All braids found in the coiffures were simple and of three strands, mostly 1 cm [0.4 inches] wide, with strands of approximately 0.5 cm [0.2 inches] when tightly braided,” Bos writes in the journal article.
People at Amarna also liked to keep their hair short. “Braids were often not more than 20 cm [7.9 inches] long, leaving the hair at shoulder length approximately,” Bos added. “The longest hair that was found consisted of multilayered extensions to a length of approximately 30 cm [11.8 inches].”
Fat was used to help create all the hairstyles Bos found, something that would have helped keep the hair in one piece after death. More research is needed to determine whether the fat was from animals. A textile found on each of the skulls may have been used to cover part of the head.
Hide the gray?
In one case a woman has an orange-red color on her graying hair. It appears that that she dyed her hair, possibly with henna (a flowering plant).
"We are still not completely sure if and what kind of hair coloring was used on this hair, it only seems that way macroscopically," said Bos in the email. "At present we are analyzing the hairs in order to find out whether or not some kind of coloring was used. On other sites dyed hair was found from ancient Egypt."
This woman, among other ancient Egyptians, may have dyed her hair “for the same reason as why people dye their hair today, in order not to show the gray color,” Bos said.
Ancient egyptians and their birds. From the book I monumenti dell’Egitto by Ippolito Rosselini, 1832. Drawings from murals. The complete book online via NYPL
A pair of armbands from Hellenistic Greece (c.200 BC).
They depict depict the mythical Tritons with a long serpentine tails, one male and one female. Each are carrying a small Eros figure. There are hoops behind each of the triton’s heads where a sleeve could be attached to prevent the armbands slipping down the arm. This was a practical necessity as each arm band weighed over 6 and a half ounces.
Source:The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Lekythos in the Form of Sphinx
Late 5th century BC
Clay; h 21.5 cm
The Hermitage Museum
This vessel for perfumed oil, of Attic work, was found not far from Taman in 1869. This superb example of Greek art demonstrates a notable characteristic of art of the Classical period: the form of the rim, neck and handle is that of a lekythos, while the body is executed in the form of a Sphinx – a mythological creature with a lion’s body, bird’s wings, and a woman’s head, with fine facial features and a magnificent head of curly hair.
Horrea Agrippiana, Rome.
Faustina Senior, wife of Antoninus Pius, elephants pulling a cart with her effigy (after her death)
The 12 Labours of Hercules:
- To kill the Nemean Lion
- To kill the Lernian Hydra
- To fetch the Erymanthian Boar
- To capture the Hind of Keryneia
- To drive out the Stymphalian Birds
- To clean the Augean Stables
- To capture the Cretan Bull
- To tame the horses of Diomedes
- To fetch the girdle of Hippolyte
- To fetch the oxen of Geryon
- To fetch Kerberos from the Underworld
- To fetch the Golden Apples of the Hesperides
A selection of gold jewellery, British Museum, London. [Photograph taken by myself]
Top left: Gold earring in the form of a Siren, dated around 320- 300 BC.
Bottom left: Gold earring pendant in the form of a Nike with a trophy, dated around 300 BC.
Right: Gold strap necklace with seed-like pendants, dated around 330- 300 BC.