What was the function of the cone-shaped objects ancient Egyptian men and women wore on their heads? And were they even real?

In ancient times, on tomb walls, men and women were depicted wearing cone-shaped objects on their heads. What these objects were, what they were used for in daily life and whether they existed at all has long been a matter of debate among scholars, but a discovery made in the desert around Tell el-Amarna, ancient Akhetaten, has partly solved the mystery.

Detail of the interment of a woman with a cone placed on her head.

©The Amarna Project

Cosmetics or Medicines?

From the New Kingdom (the 16th century BCE) onwards, banquets become a frequent subject depicted on tomb walls. People portrayed attending these banquets are often shown wearing curious-looking cones on their heads in the presence of the gods or in the presence of their dead family members. On some reliefs you can clearly distinguish stripes on these cones resembling a dripping substance. The general idea is that these cones were made of unguent or wax that melted in the Egyptian heat and ran into the wearer’s hair, moisturizing it. The cones were likely imbued with scented materials (myrrh has been one suggested ingredient), producing an aromatizing effect in addition to the moisturizing properties. It is sometimes suggested that the cones also eradicated parasites, because of their antiseptic property. In other words, these cones may have been cosmetic care products with medicinal properties.

The cone found in the South Tombs Cemetery.

©The Amarna Project

Divine Contact

In addition to the perfuming and cleansing effects, the cones also served a different purpose. Men and women presented with the cones were not only depicted attending banquets, but they were also depicted wearing cones when receiving awards by the pharaoh, while worshiping gods, when sacrificing to their loved ones, and during rituals related to birth. This has led Egyptologists to believe that the cones had something to do with fertility and with the Egyptian belief in (rebirth in) the afterlife. It has also led to the interpretation that the cones were associated with the ancient concept of the ba. The ba is a complex entity—the ‘vital power’ of a person—one of the five entities each person had according to the ancient belief. After death, a person’s ba could leave the grave and roam freely in the land of the living. Some Egyptologists have theorized that a cone depicted on the head of the deceased symbolizes an active state of the ba, where it could be in contact with people in the land of the living. In turn, a living person could actively be in contact with the divine (and the deceased) through a cone, which placed them in an elevated state of being.

A cone depicted on the head of an elite woman from Tell el-Amarna (from the tomb of Godfather Ay).

©Jolanda Bos

Symbolic or Not?

Although the cones are abundantly present in texts and images from antiquity, they have been completely absent from the archaeological record until recently. As a result, there has been a lot of speculation that these objects were merely symbolic and did not exist as they were depicted; that is, until two cones were found in the excavations of the non-elite cemeteries of Tell el-Amarna, the ancient capital Akhetaten of Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti, occupied between 1347 and 1332 BCE. This discovery has partly solved the mystery surrounding the cones. One cone was discovered in the so-called South Tombs Cemetery on the head of a woman who was between 20 and 29 years old when she died. The second one was excavated from the North Tombs Cemetery in the disturbed grave of a person between 15 and 20 years old. For this second individual, the sex remains undetermined. Both cones had been carefully placed on the hair of the deceased before they were wrapped in linen, rolled in a mat, and buried in a shallow pit dug into the sand. No bodies in these cemeteries were mummified. These finds of course now provide us with the opportunity to finally analyze the material of these cones. This research was done in 2019.

The surface of the cone found in the South Tombs Cemetery at Tell el-Amarna.

©The Amarna Project

Beeswax and Textiles

The finds from Amarna are unique. The reason that these cones have never before been identified in Egypt probably has to do with the careful excavation of these cemeteries. In the early years of Egyptology, the burial grounds of the non-elite were not examined in the same careful manner as thpse of royals or nobles. In earlier excavations, many cemeteries were rapidly cleared of bodies and finds, and these cone remains could therefore easily have been overlooked. The material may also have been lost due to natural degradation or past looting. Both objects from Tell el-Amarna turned out to have been preserved only partially and, upon closer examination, were found to be hollow. The cone recovered from the South Tombs Cemetery shows a faint imprint and some brown textile or fibre remains on the inside of the cone. Spectroscopic analyses were used to determine the substance of these cones. Since the objects still felt silky and waxy when excavated, it was not surprising to read from the results that the main component of the cones was indeed an animal wax, most likely beeswax. Any additional scented ingredients that may have once impregnated the wax were not detected by the techniques used. Perhaps these perfumes had already evaporated after burial. The result of the excavation and the analysis was published in the scientific journal Antiquity in 2019. 

An Ancient Remedy?

From statues, texts, and scenes on tomb walls, Egyptologists believe that head cones spread scent and had a purifying effect with antiseptic properties. They also believed the cones induced an elevated state of being for the wearer, possibly by added ingredients. After many years of speculating about the actual existence of these cones, the finds from Tell el-Amarna show conclusively that head-cones, as depicted on reliefs and statues, were indeed used in ancient Egypt. We now also know the main ingredient of these cones: beeswax. Thanks to these finds, we understand more about the meaning and the use of these head-cones as well. For instance, we know that the use of the cones was not reserved for the Egyptian elite, as one might think by looking at reliefs and statues alone. In fact, no physical evidence of cones has been found in elite tombs to date. Their presence in the Tell el-Amarna graves tells us about the individuals wearing the cones and their specific circumstances. Cones are not abundantly present in the cemeteries and seem to have been used in specific circumstances. Considering the association of cones with fertility, birth, and rebirth in the afterlife, it is highly possible that the cones were used—especially in the non-elite burials—to overcome personal problems such as infertility or death in childbirth. The cones were perhaps placed on the head of these women as a remedy for real-life problems. It may also be that the cone was thought to enhance the effectiveness of the only partially mummified body, an idea that fits well with the thought that the cone also symbolizes and amplifies the effectiveness of the ba.