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The mystery of the Egyptian perfume cone

Tomb painting showing cones on the head

Tomb painting showing cones on the head

 

Have you ever noticed the strange cone things on peoples head in Egyptian tomb paintings?

Most history books will probably tell you that these cones were made of perfumed wax, oils or fat, which people would wear on top of their wigs to parties and feasts. I think the idea is that in the heat of the night the wax or fat would melt releasing wonderful smells and moisturising oils.

What do you think? It seems a little bit odd. The cones look like they have some sort of yellow petals or drips at the top. They seem to be worn mainly by women but also by men. They are worn by musicians and servants as well as the rich party goers. Why didn’t the cones just fall off? What kept them on?

In an attempt to see what these cones were all about we decided to have a go at making some.

How to make a perfumed cone

cones1

You will need:

  • Some beeswax and/or lard, you could also try melting down some old candles
  • Some perfumed oils, flower petals or anything else you can think of to decorate your cone.
  • A mould – we had an old candle mould, but we also used an old yogurt pot (in Ancient Egypt these cones came in a lot of different shapes and sizes!)

Firstly you will need to melt the wax or lard. The wax needs to be melted in a double boiler on the stove so you will need to get a grown up to help with this. The wax goes into a old tin in a pan of gently boiling water and should melt slowly. The lard can go straight into a pan to be melted.

cones2

Once they are melted you can stir in the perfumed buy cytotec canada oil.

Put some petals or other decoration into the moulds then gently pour in your lard or wax.

cones4

Leave it to set.

Egyptian head cone made from animal fat and oils

Egyptian head cone made from animal fat and oils

 

Once it is cold and hard you can take it out of the mould.

Egyptian head cone made from beeswax

Egyptian head cone made from beeswax

The results – what do you think?

  • Would you like to wear one on your head?
  • Are you able to balance it on your head?
  • Does it smell nice?

Our one made of lard was a bit yukky and squidgy to be honest, and it still smelt of lard even though we had put lots of perfume in it. Nobody wanted to put it on their head!

The beeswax one was just like a scented candle – we don’t think it would ever melt and it didn’t smell very strongly.

What other clues are there?

Archaeologists have never actually found a cone, nor anything like a mould that could have been used to make them, although they knew that the Egyptians certainly used to wear perfumed oils.

There is no direct evidence to suggest that these were made of perfumed wax, oils or fat, it was just an idea that someone had and no-one else could come up with a better one.

Some recent studies have suggested that the cones were used as symbols in the tomb paintings rather than being real objects. Maybe the cone shows that the person was wearing perfume, or perhaps it represents the soul of the dead person.

So what do you think they are?

  • a) cones made of perfumed wax, oils or fats
  • b) a symbol to show that person was wearing perfume
  • c) a symbol to represent the soul of the dead
  • d) none of the above!

Maybe you have a better idea! Please let me know if you do.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Habicht, Michael E says:

    Recently a perfume cone was found on a body in the cemetery of Tell el-Amarna:
    See: http://www.amarnatrust.com/horizon-newsletter-7.pdf

    It is described as: “On her head is a hollow cone of pale, brittle waxy substance”.

    • Fiona Mair says:

      Yes, that is really interesting. As far as I know this is the only possible cone that has been found. I’m still not convinced though. I hope that they will do some further analysis on it so we can find out what it is made of.

      • Corinne Duhig says:

        They have found fragments of more cones. They intend to get them analysed when circumstances are right. The cones have no perfume smell, although the scent of essential oils can last almost for ever.

        My view is that a piece of fabric soaked with some scented liquid was put inside: less messy (surely no-one would voluntarily have animal fat running down their faces, clothes and — especially — their best party wigs?) Some pictures seem to show little dots with something running down from them; the cones found have lots of small holes.

  2. In ancient Egypt, lard would have been ‘sweetened’ before being used to make perfume. This was done by adding wine to the lard (sometimes with nice smelling plants), this was warmed over a gentle heat, and the wine would evaporate through the lard, which would leave it smelling sweeter.

    Another idea would be to add a vegetable oil to the beeswax, which would give it a softer consistency, and allow it to melt easier.

    • Fiona Mair says:

      These are really interesting ideas – where did you learn about sweetening the lard?
      Adding oil to the beeswax would give you something like lip balm (I have made lip balm with oil, beeswax and essential oil), so it would be like putting some scented lip balm on your head. Would this really give off a strong scent? I’m not sure – might have to try!

  3. Michele Holtfreter says:

    The cones on their heads were lumps of fat from ox, duck, goose, or hippopotamus saturated with myrrh or other oils like marjoram, sweet flag, or lotus. They would put the cones on top of their heads in the morning and as it got hotter the fat would slowly melt running down their bodies keeping their skin moist and repelling insects. They had no showers or insect repellent and if they lived in the Nile River distributary areas it was like a wetland and insects and mosquitoes would be rampant and people would get very sick from the insect bites. Early form of “Off”

    • Fiona Mair says:

      Interesting! But how would it have stayed on top of your head? Would it not just fall off? Is there any evidence to support this (and of course you must let us know what it is)? Do any living cultures in the area do anything similar maybe?

  4. Erika Vanheck says:

    I do not think they used animal fat or wax – they were a lot of prohibitions linked to various kind of animals in ancient Egypt (a lot of them are still found in the Old Testimony).
    Most likely they used as a base a product still widely used in Africa today – shee butter, maybe mixed with other vegetable butters. The cone is probably oversized on the paintings though.

    • Ross Bradshaw says:

      There were only certain animals that were considered taboo in Ancient Egypt. The most widely known example being pigs. Beef tallow was widely used in cosmetics, and medicine. As well as ox fat, and beeswax.

  5. Bluejay Young says:

    Cecil B. DeMille researched these cones when he was doing The Ten Commandments. It was his understanding that many of these cones were candles — something like the lighted helmets miners wear. DeMille wanted very much to show the servants in the palace wearing them, but continuity was impossible to achieve between shots.
    Egyptian poetry talks about “perfume on your head” for a party, but they have found many wigs in tombs and there isn’t a lot of oil on them. The mystery continues…

  6. andre MAUCHERAT says:

    The Egyptian perfume cones are symbolic drawings in order to obtain eternal life and rebirth. These are copies of an atmospheric optical phenomenon called lower tangent arc of the solar halo when the halo is tangent to the horizon. See my two books (in French) on Egyptian mythologies to my publisher Actilia-Multimedia : http://www.actiliamultimedia.fr/Edition/Actilia%20Multimedia%20Editions%20Accueil.php archeoastronomie
    http://www.atoptics.co.uk/halo/colsolat.htm# http://www.atoptics.co.uk/halo/subpars.htm
    http://www.atoptics.co.uk/fz826.htm http://www.atoptics.co.uk/fz1011.htm

  7. There is a 2012 study on these cones for those who wish to read a more scholarly (and evidence-based) interpretation. See Joan Padgham, A New Interpretation of the Cone on the Head in New Kingdom Egyptian Tomb Scenes, BAR Series (2012). Most scholars seem to avoid direct statements on the identification of these cones. This study likely can be supplemented with even more research, but it is a much better source to begin your reading than multiplied statements of the same unsupported hypothesis about perfumed wax/fat cones on the Internet. Context is very important when interpreting such images, as is a wider understanding of the religion practiced at the time when the cones are mainly represented. Comparative examples and associated objects are also important (lilies, where the cones appear — such as on sarcophagi, in worship scenes, on one figure but not on those around them sometimes, etc.). I applaud the style of the writer of this blog, by the way — and I second the intention. Don’t believe everything you read, especially on the Internet (it is a rumor mill). Examine the topic for yourself. But look for evidence and don’t race to conclusions if no evidence is yet solid.

  8. Dear Webmaster,
    I am not criticizing, but simply curious to know why my comment was deleted. This concerned an academic study of the cone on the head by Joan Padgham. I thought that might be useful and interesting for your readers, no?

    • Fiona Mair says:

      Very sorry David – your comment must have slipped through the net somehow. Thank you for your very informative comment – the Joan Padgham study was actually the one I referred to in the blog post – this was a very interesting interpretation and possibly the most credible. If this is correct there would be no archaeological evidence for these cones at all, though I think there has been least one ‘possible’ documented in an archaeological paper somewhere though I can’t remember where now. It is amazing how an idea can become the ‘truth’ as reported in history books and website with absolutely no evidence at all – and it is useful for children to think this through for themselves. Attempting to recreate a wax cone is quite a useful exercise in that it makes you at least wonder why on earth anyone would stick a smelly lump of fat/wax/lard on your head at all!

  9. Thank you Fiona!

    The recent archaeological find was apparently the (as yet untested) remnant of a wax cone found with a mummy in 2014, I think (don’t hold me to this — I am writing from memory). Ancient Egypt Magazine carried a mention of it in two issues, one being a review of Joan Padgham’s book, and I have seen another reference online as well. I would note that even the presence of a wax cone in a site does not necessarily mean they perfumed it or used them at parties (apart from possibly funerary parties), but interested people can do some research to find the results of the study, or try emailing the scholars involved for updates. There is a scholarly discussion of the perfumed cones at the end of an academically published article online (as of Oct. 2016) by Chloe Kroeter, “The Sensual Banquet Scene: Sex and the Senses in Eighteenth Dynasty Theban Tomb Paintings” at https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/media/school-of-art-history/pdfs/journalofahandms/sensualbanquet.pdf . This mentions the debate about the reality of the cones in actual use by living people (the debate seems to have started in the 1950s).

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