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November 2002-April 2009Excavating Hierakonpolis

Andrew Wilson, the "hair guy"

Photo courtesy of the Hierakonpolis Expedition. Click on image for larger version.
by Andrew Wilson

Archaeological Hair

The common misconception that all hair turns red over archaeological timescales has found its way into archaeological folklore. Whilst certain environments such as those producing bog bodies are known to yield hair of a red-brown color, in part because of the breakdown of organic matter and presence of humic acids which impart a brown color to recovered remains, it has commonly been assumed that this happens to all archaeological hair. This concept has been perpetuated by popular nicknames such as "Ginger"--affectionately given to the Predynastic burial with red hair on display in the mummy rooms at the British Museum.

Potential change to hair color can be explained more scientifically by examining the chemistry of melanin which is responsible for hair color in life. All hair contains a mixture in varying concentration of both black-brown eumelanin and red-yellow phaeomelanin pigments, which are susceptible to differential chemical change under certain extreme burial conditions (for example wet reducing conditions, or dry oxidising conditions). Importantly, phaeomelanin is much more stable to environmental conditions than eumelanin, hence the reactions occurring in the burial environment favor the preservation of phaeomelanin, revealing and enhancing the red/ yellow color of hairs containing this pigment. Color changes occur slowly under dry oxidising conditions, such as in the burials in sand at Hierakonpolis. Whether the conditions within the wood and plaster coffin contributed to accelerated color change, or whether this individual naturally had more phaeomelanin pigmentation in his hair is hard to say without further analysis.

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