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THE CONSTRUCTION OF AN ANCIENT EGYPTIAN MALE’S WIG (c.1500-1300 BCE) IN THE BRITISH MUSEUM

In 1853 the British Museum purchased an 18th dynasty ancient Egyptian males wig from the Henry Salt collection at Sotheby’s London – (probably lot 1062).

The wig, (EA2560) was found inside its own purpose made wig box (EA2561) constructed from reeds, discovered from a noble mans tomb in Thebes – Egypt.

The wig had not been expertly examined since its purchase in 1853, until hairdresser and wigmaker James Stevens Cox was invited by the British Museum in 1975 and later, twice by Egyptologist Dr. Joann Fletcher in the 1990’s. and since then, very little had been published if at all about the construction techniques of ancient Egyptians wigs.

Also, up until Dr. Joann Fletchers extensive research, this wig and others of similar size and styling had always be considered to have belonged to a female. Examples of which, both old and modern have appeared in many publications such as Richard Corson’s 1960’s book: HAIR and by William Andrews, AT THE SIGN OF THE BARBER’S POLE: STUDIES IN HIRSUTE HISTORY -1904: containing an 1867 engraving of the wig which held at the British Museum. He refers to the supposed female wig, in his chapter, aptly titled: THE AGE OF WIGS, where he writes:
“On the mummies of Egypt, wigs are found, and we give a picture of one now in the British Museum. This particular wig probably belonged to a female, and was found near the small temple of Isis, in Thebes.”
“The wigs were worn both within the house and out of doors. The specimens of Egyptian wigs in the British Museum consist of curled hair in the upper portions, and the lower parts and sides are made of plaited hair. Ointment was used at the top of the wig in the same manner as if it had been hair growing on the head.”
The wigs worn by the high official men and priests especially of the New Kingdom and certainly into the Third Intermediate Period, remained large in its over all shape, examples of which are displayed in the Cairo Museum that were found

In 1881 in the Deir el-Bahri cache of priest’s mummies a wig that was contained in a box with the seals of High Priest Menkheperre. This find gives conclusive proof of males having ownership of such large wigs.

In Steven’s account, Cox J. Stevens, JEA 63 (1977), Stevens was able to examine the wig outside its glass case, (but not removed from its wooden block from which it was displayed due to the wig being attached by small metal tacks in the early 19th Century). Sadly however this is now on longer possible, due to the extremely brittle condition of the hair, (something that could have been avoided had the item been given the attention it fully deserved).

The entire wig is constructed entirely from human hair is clearly styled in the Double Style, also known as a “Duplex” wig owing to the distinct styling with the top half dressed in curls and the lower half plaits. The circumference of this particular wig, measures 23.5 inches, with the top half in a profusion of very tight almost spiral curls, – light brown to golden blonde in colour and the lower half, from hundreds of fine three strand plaits of varying shades of brown and some auburn. The original estimated length of the plaits is 15 inches long.

Due to the fragility and the unfortunate nature of the fixture of the wig to the wooden block (held down with metal tacks), no-one has been able to remove the wig to see and record the construction of the top part of the wig. And therefore we are still unable to say how each individual curls have been attached. However, during Stevens’s examination in 1975 it was permissible then, to examine the wig from outside its secure glass cabinet therefore he was able – where possible separate the hair mass a fraction of an inch allowing a view of the foundation mesh and how the only the braids were attached onto it. The foundation mesh itself is also constructed out of finely plaited human hair forming a net like structure, with approximately half inch spacing.

1The pre-prepared lengths of plaits and curls were each formed with a straight hair stem at the root area of around 1inch in length. This free stem which was given an application of a wax fixative was then used to anchor each plait or curl onto the wigs foundation mesh by looping the root section over the mesh and pressed against the waxed hair stem. A very fine subsection of hairs were then separated from the stem up to the point of looping. This fine strand was then used to tightly wind around the hair stem starting close to the foundation and working approximately 1.5 inches down and then back up along the pre bound stem. Finally the hair ends were pressed into the waxed stem, which would have hardened after a few minutes of anchorage. To this we owe Stevens a debt of gratitude, especially as this was the first ever time anyone had examined and documented any ancient Egyptian methods of wig construction.

The British Museum Research Laboratory carried out an analysis of the fixative that was found coated on the hair that was applied during the construction of the wig which showed that the fixative was made up of two-thirds bee’s wax & one-third resin possibly 2myrrh. This fixative allowed a secure hold due to bee’s wax melting point of around 62 C (140 F) to 65 C (149 F), which the outside temperature would have to exceed before the anchorage would soften and melt. The fixative used on ancient Egyptian wigs that were examined in the Cairo Museum by A. Lucas (Annales du Service, 30, 1930 190-6), found that the melting point varied between 60 C (140 F) and 63 C (145.4 F).

During my own examination of the wig at the British Museum on 17th November 2008, I noted a number important points that were either missed or interestingly quite different from the examination by Cox J. Stevens, JEA 63 1977. The examples I noted are as follows:

• Firstly, I noticed the wigs very distinctly shaped curls that were not only executed with precision, but are made up of 90% of well formed individual spiral curls which are extremely fine, ranging from 3-5mm to 1/1.5cm in diameter and not just ‘half an inch’ as mentioned by Stevens, where his only description of the curls reads: ‘“a mass of half inch (1.27cm) diameter, annular, open-centre, brown curls…”’

• Secondly, as well as the varying size of the curls, I saw a notable difference in hair colour used in the construction of the wig. The curls range from a very light brown to golden blonde instead of just simply ‘brown’, as described by Stevens. Also the plaits range from dark brown to light brown with the addition of auburn shades, which was not referred to at all.

• However, due to the eumelanin (black to brown colour pigment in hair), being unstable, it is therefore susceptible to colour change and lightening, (which could account for the light hair colour), yet the overall shade of the curls is a definite golden blonde, which must have been a light shade of hair used when it was constructed.

• And thirdly, until now, no reference has been made about the wigs overall shape. There is a certain “squareness” to the shape of the wig owing to the lack of rounded corners at either side giving an almost rectangular shape to its profile. Also several plaits at the side area have been grouped together then attached at the sides giving extra bulk pushing out the sides and adding to its rectangular shape.

For many years now there has been the misconception that the wig was made for a lady owing to the wigs large and bouffant style therefore it was considered of 3female ownership. However, this is simply not the case especially as the wig was found in nobleman’s tomb.

2 The gum resin myrrh has been known to be commonly used in the ancient east known to be one of the finest perfumes together with frankincense. Myrrh is a reddish-brown resinous material, the dried sap of the tree Commiphora myrrha, native to Yemen, Somalia and the eastern parts of Ethiopia.3 See W. Andrew, At the sign of the Barbers Pole, pg 72, 1904. Cox J. Stevens, Illustrated Dictionary of Hairdressing & Wig making pg 266 1989, & Corson R. Fashions in Hair pg 40, 9th edn. 2001

Also it is believed that the top half of the wig has been constructed out of ‘naturally curly’ hair. One piece of evidence that makes me feel that this is not so, is due to the lower portion of the curls, which appears to have become unraveled due to many factors including gravity and atmospheric changes during the past 3,400 years. Naturally curly hair will always return from straight to curly and never from curly to straight, which the lower curls have done, hence the strong possibility that straight 4cynotrichous hair was used through out the top half of the wig, which was tightly and expertly curled.

5Natural curl in hair is caused by the difference in either side of the hair termed: ‘para’ and ‘ortho’ cortex. In very curly hair, evidence of this dual cortex has been found that by using certain staining techniques, viewing cross-sections of hairs under a microscope. What’s discovered is the ortho cortex had a less dense structure with a lower sulphur content (responsible for holding the hair’s natural shape permanently), than the para cortex and always lies on the outside of the wave, similar to the straight hair that has been permed.

Therefore, in order to be absolutely certain whether the top portion of the hair is either straight or curly cynotrichous hair was used; tests would need to be carried out. If the test proved the hair to be cynotrichous, it would highlight the incredible talents styling techniques of turning straight hair into soft tight spirals lasting for over three millennia (!)

It is astonishing that it has taken 140 long years before the wig was given its first ever examination, what does this tell us about the amount of importance given to the topic of ancient hairdressing and wig making. And now the wig is deemed to fragile for public display. I hope that some time soon, another ancient Egyptian wig with become available that has far less as fragile, with more accessibility to be given a full examination and tests permissible that both the wig and ancient Egyptian craftsman deserves, thus helping us to unravel more secrets of the methods so cleverly used, but above all giving us a greater understanding of the way the ancient Egyptians once lived.

4 Cyno = dog/wavy trich = hair ous = of a type. Its Greek translation, which means: “To be like dog’s hair”, due to dog’s fur that can range from straight to curly. This use of Cynotrichous hair instead was used through out the dynastic period. This may be due to the Cynotrichous hair being more reliant and varied in colour, length and texture lending itself to the demands of the ancient Egyptian’s love for elaborate hairstyles.5 See F. Openshaw, Advanced Hairdressing Science, pg 164, 8th edn., 1991.

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THE CONSTRUCTION OF AN ANCIENT EGYPTIAN MALE’S WIG (c.1500-1300 BCE) IN THE BRITISH MUSEUM by 


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