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Great Hair Days in Ancient Egypt

By Ilene Springer. First published July 1, 2001 in Tour Egypt.

There was probably no better time for hair than in ancient Egypt. You could dye it, cut it, braid it, shave it, weave charms into it—and then there were the wigs—of countless designs. The ancient Egyptians-- both men and women--were known for hating facial and body hair and used all kinds of shaving implements to get rid of it. But hair on the head? They loved it—and had so many ways of showing it.

"Human hair was of great importance in ancient Egypt," writes Egyptologist Joann Fletcher, Ph.D., for Egypt Revealed magazine. "Rich or poor of both genders treated hair—their own or locks obtained elsewhere—as a highly pliable means of self-expression."

But hair styles were more than self-expression. Wigs, which the Egyptians were very fond of, not only allowed for ornate hair decorating, but also helped the ancient Egyptians with cleanliness, protected the (shaved) scalp from the sun and kept the head cool and also prevented that modern-day scourge—head lice, according to Fletcher. She writes, "Our research has turned up the world’s oldest head lice, which bedeviled an Egyptian from Abydos about 5000 years ago."

How do we know about ancient Egyptian hair? Egypt’s hot and dry conditions naturally preserved the soft tissues of the body after death, including the nails, skin and hair. This is true even of poor people who were simply buried in the sand and not mummified. From this process we have seen the many different ways the ancient Egyptians adorned their hair. There is archaeological evidence that hair extensions and dyes were used in Egypt at least as early as 3400 B.C.

We have also recovered many different tomb paintings and statues that show elaborate hair styles. A most interesting feature on many of the statues is the artistic rendering of a bit of the person’s natural hair peeking through under the wig, indicating that wigs were a desired form of hair ornament and were an obvious supplement to the hair—and not used to replace the natural hair.

It is the tomb paintings that show the hair in "motion." Many paintings show women with their ornate wigs topped by a perfumed cone, often worn during festive occasions, which melted and cascaded over the wig as the evening went on. The tomb paintings also show men and women getting their hair done by other individuals, probably servants. There is evidence that the Egyptians cut their hair with very sharp blades as early as 3000 B.C.

What is most intriguing, according to Fletcher, is that women’s wigs were less elaborate than those of men’s. Therefore, they may have appeared more natural looking. One exception was a female mummy discovered in the Valley of the Golden Mummies with a mask on her head with a unique hairstyle at the back arranged in a round cake-like shape, according to Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass.

For the most part, women used hair extensions to fill out thinning hair or just make regular tresses more luxuriant. Wigs and extensions were almost always made of human hair—either collected from the individual or bought or traded from someone else. Wigs and extensions were fashioned with a variety of clever weaves and knots that were secured into or onto the real hair (or scalp) with beeswax and resin. Many wigs had an internal padding of date-palm fiber that gave the wigs their famous fullness.

Braids were a favorite form of hair extension, and some were woven into intricate designs to give more length and greater style. According to Fletcher, a man buried at Mostagedda had used thread to fasten lengths of human hair to his own. The wavy brown hair of Queen Meryet-Amun had been filled out around the crown and temples with tapered braids. She was also buried, as many well-to-do women, with a duplicate set of braids.

The ancient Egyptians hated gray hair and would use a variety of methods to eliminate it. Sometimes the hair would be dyed after death. The dye of choice was vegetable henna, which, five thousand years later is still used by many native Egyptians (and people abroad) for the same purpose. In one mummy, the henna dyed the natural dark brown hair an auburn color, while turning the unpigmented white hairs a bright orange.

Art was a part of everyday life of the ancient Egyptians. And it is clear that they considered their hair as a supreme form of self-art which had endless possibilities. Again, we can thank the skill of these ancient artisans and the climate for allowing us to still enjoy what they did thousands of years ago.

Ilene Springer writes on ancient Egypt. She is a student of museum studies at Harvard University in Boston.

Reproduced with permission. Copyright (c) 2001 Tour Egypt/Ilene Springer.

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