Wednesday, August 9, 2017

From My Files 3: The Oldest Record of Henna

From My Files, week 3! This week we're going back in time to find the earliest record of henna... Where and when did it begin — India? Africa? Babylonia? Google searches only reveal a black hole of contradictions and misinformation.

Where? Where???
There are few records of henna in the ancient world, and scholars face significant challenges, including the lack of archaeological evidence and confusion over what henna was called in different areas of the world, as well as having to face centuries of henna being overlooked by historians as insignificant or unworthy of serious study. We have only begun to piece together the scattered fragments of evidence for how henna was used in the ancient world... To learn more about henna in the Bible and the ancient Levant, in the Hellenistic world, and in ancient Egypt, see here.

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.
One hundred years later, a team of North American archaeologists undertook another season of excavations at Nekhen, and unearthed a number of important finds, including a workers’ cemetery of the predynastic period (HK43), dated to approximately 3400 BCE. 

The Mudira of HK43
with reconstructed
Some of the bodies were found wrapped in linen shrouds and matting, and even some traces of resin, suggesting that their bodies were purposefully and artificially prepared for the afterlife — a process now known as mummification! If so, these would be the earliest mummies known from ancient Egypt.

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.
The Mudira’s hair was naturally a dark brown colour, but close inspection revealed greying hairs that had been dyed a brighter orange colour, most likely either shortly before death or as part of a post-mortem treatment. Suspecting henna, Dr. Fletcher tested samples of the Mudira’s hair against a modern sample of hair, dyed with local henna found growing at the site, and indeed they were shown to be identical. Thus this anonymous middle-aged woman, buried in an unmarked grave in a workers’ cemetery, has the honour of representing the oldest confirmed use of henna as a dye, to my knowledge, in the world.

Dr. Joann Fletcher examining a mummy's hair from Nekhen, 1998
Many other later mummies from Dynastic Egypt also survive with hennaed hair and fingernails, including famous figures like Ramses I and Hatshepsut. Unfortunately we know little else about the use of henna in ancient Egypt — it doesn’t appear in any Egyptian art, nor do we have any clear textual references to it. But it seems likely that it was part of the funerary preparations, perhaps as a way to restore greying hair to its youthful appearance. And thanks to Dr. Fletcher and the excavations at Nekhen, we can confirm that this practice dates back to the beginnings of ancient Egyptian civilization as we know it, five and half thousand years ago.

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.

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