Ancient Egyptians used hair gel

Ancient Egyptians wouldn't be caught dead without hair gel. Style in the afterlife was just as important as it was during life on Earth – and coiffure was key. 

Ancient Egytians used hair gel [Credit: Time Life Pictures/Getty]
To this end, men and women alike would have their tresses styled with a fat-based "gel" when they were embalmed. The evidence of their vanity has been found in a community cemetery dating back 3000 years. 

Tomb paintings depict people with cone-shaped objects sitting on their heads, thought to be lumps of scented animal fat. "Once we started looking [for these], we found interesting hairstyles," says Natalie McCreesh of the University of Manchester, UK. "The hair was styled and perfectly curled." 

She and her colleagues examined hair samples from 15 mummies from the Kellis 1 cemetery in Dakhla oasis, Egypt, and a further three samples from mummies housed in museum collections in the US, the UK and Ireland. The mummies were of both sexes, between 4 and 58 years old when they died, and dated from 3500 years to 2300 years ago. 

When examined with light and electron microscopes, it became clear that the hairs of most mummies were coated with a fatty substance, though a few had been coiffed with something resinous. 

Because they're worth it 

The team used a solvent to separate the coatings from the hairs and determined the coatings' chemical composition. They found that the substances were different to those commonly used to embalm bodies. By contrast, two mummies whose heads had been shaved carried the same embalming materials on their heads as on the bandages around the body. 

It seems, says McCreesh, that when a body was being coated in resinous materials, the hair would be covered and protected, or washed and restyled, in order to preserve the dead person's identity. 

Maria Perla Colombini of the University of Pisa, Italy, points out that Egyptians were not the only ancient society to worry about mummified hair care. In South America, bodies were preserved with resin and pitch, and the hair coloured with powder, she says. 

"People presume the ancient Egyptians shaved their heads. The priests and priestesses did, but not everyone. They did take pride in their appearance," says McCreesh. 

"The whole point of mummification was to preserve the body as in life. I guess they wanted to look their best. You'd be dressed in your fancy party outfit. You'd want to look beautiful in preparation for the next life". 

Journal reference: Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2011.08.004 

Author: Cian O'Luanaigh | Source: New Scientist [August 18, 2011]

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