Luckily, the situation has begun to change in recent years. Thanks to the dedicated and intrepid (and controversial!) work of an Egyptologist named Dr. Joann Fletcher, we can now trace the oldest record of henna back five and a half thousand years to ancient Egypt. In particular, we can say that women were dyeing their hair with henna in the city of Nekhen, ancient capital of Upper Egypt, in the predynastic period, approximately 3400 BCE.
Nekhen (also known as Hierakonpolis in Greek, and al-Kom al-Aḥmar in Arabic), was a very important city in ancient Egypt, and it seems to be the site where Upper and Lower Egypt were first united as a political entity (around 3100 BCE), which began the time of Dynastic Egypt — what we usually imagine when we think of ancient Egypt, the pharaohs, the pyramids, etc. The famous Narmer Palette, which depicts the first pharaoh of united Egypt, was discovered at British excavations at Nekhen in 1897-1898.
|The 'Narmer Palette,' now held in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.|
|The Mudira of HK43 |
The bodies show evidence of lifetimes of hard work — extensive wear on the bones of the arms and legs, and herniated disks in the back. These were not nobility or pharaohs. But they were carefully and lovingly buried, with baskets, beads, and pottery; their bodies were well-preserved in the dry sand, and many of them still had full heads of hair…
Among them was Burial no. 16, a woman approximately 35-40 years of age, affectionately nicknamed ‘the Mudira’ (“the directress”) by the archaeological team. The Mudira’s burial, like others in the cemetery, had been plundered shortly after burial, and her head and skull had been severely damaged.
But the archaeologists were able to reconstruct her hairstyle, revealing that her shoulder-length hair had been augmented with a considerable number of long artificial locks, carefully worked into her natural hair in a coiffure that must have taken many hours. This is the earliest evidence for false hair extensions in Egypt… and also the earliest evidence of henna!
|A lock from the Mudira taken for scientific analysis.|
|Dr. Joann Fletcher examining a mummy's hair from Nekhen, 1998|
Dr. Fletcher’s initial reports from the field can be found in the newsletters of the Nekhen expedition from 1997 and 1998, as well as a more thorough study of ancient Egyptian hair (the subject of her PhD dissertation) in The Ostracon: the Journal of the Egyptian Study Society in 2002.