As It Happens

Scientists find 1st physical evidence of head cones often depicted in ancient Egyptian art

Researchers say they have found real-life examples of "head cones" worn by the ancient Egyptians, which had previously only been found depicted in art.

Conservation scientist Cory Rogge says researchers still have no idea what the wax cones were for

Head cones are often depicted in ancient Egyptian artwork, but researchers had never found any physical evidence of the conical hats until now. (The Armana Project/Antiquity Publications Ltd.)


Ancient Egyptian art often depicts people wearing cone-shaped objects on their heads. But there's never been any physical evidence of these cones — until now. 

For the first time, archeologists have uncovered two head cones at two excavations at Egypt's Amarna cemeteries. The details were published this month in the journal Antiquity.

Co-author Cory Rogge, a conservation scientist at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Houston, Texas, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the discovery.

Here is part of their conversation.

First of all, where are these depictions of ancient Egyptians wearing head cones usually found? 

We see them in tomb paintings — and both the non-elite and elite tombs. And we'll find them sometimes on stela [stone or wooden slabs], on depictions of individuals on cartonnage coffins — kind of scattered throughout the funerary realm, I would say.

What kinds of activities are going on when they're wearing these cones?

They're banqueting scenes where the men and women are sitting in a banquet being served food. There are some scenes where the individuals are hunting in the marshes and they will be wearing cones.

Sometimes they are worshipping gods while wearing them, or interacting with their deceased ancestors.

Researchers found graves of ancient Egyptians wearing wax head cones that are often depicted in art. (The Armana Project/Antiquity Publications Ltd.)

And how often do you find depictions of ancient Egyptians wearing head cones?

They're pretty common in the New Kingdom.

So it's been a big mystery as to why, when something is so commonly shown, we haven't found it.

So now what have you found in the way of these head cones?

The archaeologists on the team found the first cone in 2010 when they were excavating one of the non-elite cemeteries at Amarna. ... It was in situ on top of the woman's head. And then they found another one later on in a disturbed burial.

An Amarna funerary stela depicts a couple wearing head cones. (The Armana Project/Antiquity Publications Ltd.)

Do you know anything about the remains of those individuals who were found in these two graves?

One of our co-authors is Dr. Gretchen Dabbs and she is a specialist in bio-archeology and she knows that the first individual was a female adult. And like many of the non-elite people at Amarna, she'd had kind of a hard life and there were indications of degenerative issues in her bones that suggested physical labour.

The second individual, she wasn't able to determine the gender of the individual.

What are they actually made of? What do you now know about these cones?

That was my role. So I'm a scientist rather than an archeologist, and I travelled out there with portable, non-destructive equipment, and we were able to determine that the primary constituent of these cones is wax.

The only wax that ancient Egyptians were known to have used was beeswax. So we can infer that it was a beeswax cone.

Why do you think they were wearing beeswax cones on their heads?

We don't know.

Given the depictions of when they're wearing them, it suggests that it's something to do with kind of an elevated, or slightly beatified state. So they're able to interact with their deceased ancestors. They're able to interact with the gods. They're able to partake in ceremonies that will benefit them as individuals in their afterlife.

There are some theories that have been put forward that these cones were kind of perfume dispensers — that they were actually imparting some kind of perfumed odour to the person who was wearing it. What can you tell us about that?

The non-destructive techniques we have to use in the field are good at measuring the primary constituent, and they're not so good at detecting materials that are there in relatively low amounts.

We would expect a perfume to be present in low amounts and to have largely been lost over thousands of years of burial. So we're not really able to say whether these were perfumed or not.

Why are there even theories that they might have been perfume dispensers?

There are a lot of scenes of them worshipping gods or interacting with their ancestors and there's incense depicted. A lot of the scenes also involve the individuals wearing cones.

So there was kind of a hypothesis that there might be a scent connection there. And also, in some of the banqueting scenes, the banqueters will be proffered flowers and they'll be wearing cones. And so you have scented flowers. Maybe the cones were also scented.

Rogge says researchers still don't know why these two particular individuals were buried wearing the head cones. (The Armana Project/Antiquity Publications Ltd.)

And there's some wavy lines around the cone sometimes too, right? That might be an image of scent emanating.

Exactly, and some of them are decorated with kind of wavy lines, which also kind of evokes that.

Is it possible that there are more elaborate versions of this and these were, I don't know, the poor man's version of these cones?

It is, but then why haven't we found them in an intact burial?

We have intact burials for individuals who are royalty and who are high elite and they've never been found there. So there must have been something about these two people and why they had them. Why didn't the other 700 individuals excavated in the Amarna cemeteries have them?

There's information we don't yet know.

I've often wondered if in some other time there will be archaeologists and scientists looking at our age and trying to figure out why we use things. And so, I mean, is it possible these cones were not really very significant at all and that maybe too much is being looked into them and they're not really that important?

Well, that's always a case. But the fact that they do appear so very often in depictions means that, I mean, why waste your time drawing it and painting it if it doesn't have a significance? 

Written by Katie Geleff and John McGill. Produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity.