Monday, October 6, 2008

Redheaded Pharaoh Ramesses II

Redheaded Pharaoh Ramesses II
Karl Earlson

Pharaoh Ramesses II

Pharaoh Ramesses II (of the 19th Dynasty), is generally considered to be the most powerful and influential King that ever reigned in Egypt. He is one of the few rulers who has earned the epithet "the Great". Subsequently, his racial origins are of extreme interest.

In 1975, the Egyptian government allowed the French to take Ramesses' mummy to Paris for conservation work. Numerous other tests were performed, to determine Ramesses' precise racial affinities, largely because the Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop, was claiming at the time that Ramesses was black. Once the work had been completed, the mummy was returned in a hermetically sealed casket, and it has remained largely hidden from public view ever since, concealed in the bowels of the Cairo Museum. The results of the study were published in a lavishly illustrated work, which was edited by L. Balout, C. Roubet and C. Desroches-Noblecourt, and was titled La Momie de Ramsès II: Contribution Scientifique à l'Égyptologie (1985).

Professor P. F. Ceccaldi, with a research team behind him, studied some hairs which were removed from the mummy's scalp. Ramesses II was 90 years-old when he died, and his hair had turned white. Ceccaldi determined that the reddish-yellow colour of the mummy's hair had been brought about by its being dyed with a dilute henna solution; it proved to be an example of the cosmetic attentions of the embalmers. However, traces of the hair's original colour (in youth), remain in the roots, even into advanced old age. Microscopic examinations proved that the hair roots contained traces of natural red pigments, and that therefore, during his youth, Ramesses II had been red-haired. It was concluded that these red pigments did not result from the hair somehow fading, or otherwise altering post-mortem, but did indeed represent Ramesses' natural hair colour. Ceccaldi also studied a cross-section of the hairs, and he determined from their oval shape, that Ramesses had been "cymotrich" (wavy-haired). Finally, he stated that such a combination of features showed that Ramesses had been a "leucoderm" (white-skinned person). [Balout, et al. (1985) 254-257.]

Balout and Roubet were under no illusions as to the significance of this discovery, and they concluded as follows:

"After having achieved this immense work, an important scientific conclusion remains to be drawn: the anthropological study and the microscopic analysis of hair, carried out by four laboratories: Judiciary Medecine (Professor Ceccaldi), Société L'Oréal, Atomic Energy Commission, and Institut Textile de France showed that Ramses II was a 'leucoderm', that is a fair-skinned man, near to the Prehistoric and Antiquity Mediterraneans, or briefly, of the Berber of Africa." [Balout, et al. (1985) 383.]

It is interesting to note the link to the North African Berbers: some Berber tribes, such as the Riffians of the Atlas Mountains, have incidences of blondism reaching almost 60%, and they have a percentage of red-haired people which is comparable to that of the Irish. [Coon & Hunt (1966) 116-117.]

These facts have not only anthropological interest however, but also great symbolic importance. In ancient Egypt, the god Seth was said to have been red-haired, and redheads were claimed to have worshipped the god devoutly. [Wainwright (1938) 31, 33, 53.] In the Ramesses study cited above, the Egyptologist Desroches-Noblecourt wrote an essay, in which she discussed the importance of Ramesses' rufous condition. She noted that the Ramessides (the family of Ramesses II), were devoted to Seth, with several bearing the name Seti, which means "beloved of Seth". She concluded that the Ramessides believed themselves to be divine descendants of Seth, with their red hair as proof of their lineage; they may even have used this peculiar physical feature to propel themselves out of obscurity, and onto the throne of the Pharaohs. Desroches-Noblecourt also speculated that Ramesses II may well have been descended from a long line of redheads. [Balout, et al. (1985) 388-391.]

Her speculations have been proved correct: Dr. Joann Fletcher, a consultant to the British Bioanthropology Foundation, has proved that Seti I (the father of Ramesses II), had red hair. [Parks (2000).] It has also been demonstrated that the mummy of Pharaoh Siptah (a great-grandson of Ramesses II), has red hair. [Partridge (1994) 169.]

We may also note the anthropological description of Ramesses' mummy, which was written by the Biblical historian Archibald Sayce:

"The Nineteenth Dynasty to which Ramses II, the oppressor of the Israelites, belonged, is distinguished by its marked dolichocephalism of long-headedness. His mummy shows an index of 74, while the face is an oval with an index of 103. The nose is prominent, but leptorrhine and aquiline, and the jaws are orthognathous. The chin is broad, the neck long, like the fingers and nails. The great king seems to have had red hair." [Sayce (1925) 136.]

All of these features are characteristics of the Nordic race. [Günther (1927) 10-23.] Finally, we should note that Professor Raymond Dart declared that the Nordic race was the "Egyptian Pharaonic type". He then went on to state specifically, that the head of Ramesses II is "pelasgic ellipsoidal or Nordic" in type. [Dart (1939).]


It is the central contention of this study, that Ramesses II was not only White, but that he was a fair-skinned, fair-haired, racially Nordish individual. If it were truly possible to prove that Ramesses was indeed black, this particular point of view would have to be reconsidered.

The idea that the Ancient Egyptians in general (and their aristocracy in particular), were predominantly black-skinned, woolly-haired, essentially African people, was most vigorously promoted by the Senegalese scholar, Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-1986). He was the foremost proponent of a series of doctrines and beliefs that have subsequently become known as "Afrocentrism." [Howe (1998).] One of Diop's numerous claims, was that Ramesses II was Negroid, and that this "fact" could be proved easily. Thus, Diop remarked:

"the Egyptians were Blacks of the type of all the native people of tropical Africa. That is particularly true when it concerns Ramses II, his father Seti I and Thutmose III." [Diop (1987) 217.]

One of Diop's major contentions, was that Ramesses II had woolly hair. He believed that this point was proved by a famous granite portrait statue of Ramesses, which currently resides in the Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy. In his book The African Origin of Civilization, Diop reproduced two photographs, one of the statue, the other of a Negroid Watusi, underneath which he placed the following remarks:

Pharaoh Ramses II (top), and a modern Watusi. The Watusi hair-do can be conceived only for woolly hair. The small circles on the Pharaoh's helmet represent frizzy hair (as noted by Denise Cappart in her article in Reflet du Monde, 1956).

[Diop (1974) 19.]

However, Ramesses' head is crowned not with woolly hair, but a helmet. Peter Clayton has noted, that in this depiction of the Pharaoh, Ramesses wears a distinctive crown. [Clayton (1995) 146.] Clayton has referred to this particular piece of head-wear as:

"the helmet-like khepresh, the so-called Blue or War Crown." [Clayton (1995) 118.]

Therefore, the spirals that are detectable on the statue, represent decoration on a helmet, not woolly hair. This point is further confirmed by the fact that in coloured depictions, the crown is painted blue, hence its name: the Blue Crown. [Geddes & Grosset (1997) 435.] It would never be this hue, if the paintings were meant to represent hair. It would appear that the distinctive Blue Crown was made from leather, and that it was invested with great ceremonial significance: it seems to have represented the Pharaoh's supremacy over the earthly realm. [Desroches-Noblecourt (1972) 128-132.] Equally, the uraeus (hooded cobra), which protrudes from the front of the crown, as well as the clearly delineated bands that mark the edges of the helmet, all reveal that the head-hair is covered. Exactly what the circles that cover the surface of the Blue Crown are supposed to represent, is debateable, but it has been suggested by F. D. P. Whicker, that they are meant to imitate the markings of a carapace (tortoise shell), this being the material from which, he believes, the original helmets were manufactured. [Whicker (1990).]

In addition to this, we should note the findings of the study that was performed upon the hair of Ramesses' mummy. It is possible to determine the race of an individual by taking a single hair from their head, and studying the structure of it. When observed in transverse section, the wavy scalp-hair of a Caucasoid is oval, or rather widely elliptic in shape, with the least diameter amounting to about 70% of the greatest. In contrast, the spiralled, woolly hair of a Negroid individual, is narrowly elliptical in shape, with the lesser axis of the ellipse being rather less than half the greater. [Baker (1974) 208, 296-297, 308.] The team of scholars that studied the hair of Ramesses II, under the direction of Professor Ceccaldi, noted that when seen in cross-section, the structure of the hair was oval in shape, and therefore concluded that Ramesses had been cymotrich (wavy-haired). [Balout, et al. (1985) 256.]

This clearly demonstrates that Ramesses did not have woolly hair, and consequently, that the Turin portrait statue does not prove that Ramesses was black. In terms of evidence evaluation, the results produced from a study of Ramesses' mortal remains, are of higher value than any amount of conclusions that have been drawn only from portraits. Therefore, Diop's claims are completely baseless.

Red-Haired Ramesses

We would perhaps do well to end with the conclusions of the research team that investigated Ramesses' hair:

"Ramses IId mummy's hair is confined to a temporo-occipital zone which corresponds to an advanced stage of baldness.

Hairs are slightly crimped and show an oval cross-section, the great axis of which lies between 60 and 70 µm: they are specific of «a cymotrich leucoderm».

The sample which was investigated comprised identical percentages of fully depigmented and pigmented hairs, the overall colour being a light fair red with some tendency towards yellow.

Although the microscope examination was able to show strong evidence of red pigments, no evidence of possible «fair» pigments was obtained: the latter might be present as a «diffuse» component which could be masked by a faint yellow dye (probably arising from dilute «Henne» or one of its derivatives)." [Balout, et al. (1985) 256.]


Baker, J. R. (1974) Race (London: Oxford University Press).

Balout, L., C. Roubet & C. Desroches-Noblecourt [eds.] (1985) La Momie de Ramsès II: Contribution Scientifique à l'Égyptologie (Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les Civilisations).

Clayton, P. A. (1995) Chronicle of the Pharaohs: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers and Dynasties of Ancient Egypt (London: Thames & Hudson).

Coon, C. S. & E. E. Hunt (1966) The Living Races of Man (London: Jonathan Cape).

Dart, R. A. (1939) "Population Fluctuation over 7,000 Years in Egypt." Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, XXVII, 95-145.

Desroches-Noblecourt, C. [Claude, trans.] (1972) Tutankhamen: Life and Death of a Pharaoh (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books).

Diop, C. A. [M. Cook, trans.] (1974) The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality? (Westport: Lawrence Hill).

Diop, C. A. (1987) "Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology." In Van Sertima & Williams (1987) 161-225.

Geddes & Grosset (1997) Ancient Egypt: Myth and History (New Lanark: Geddes & Grosset).

Günther, H. F. K. [G. C. Wheeler, trans.] (1927) The Racial Elements of European History (London: Methuen).

Howe, S. (1998) Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London: Verso).

Parks, L. (2000) "Ancient Egyptians Wore Wigs." Egypt Revealed, May 29.

Partridge, R. B. (1994) Faces of Pharaohs: Royal Mummies and Coffins From Ancient Thebes (London: Rubicon Press).

Sayce, A. H. (1925) The Races of the Old Testament (London: Religious Tract Society).

Van Sertima, I. & L. Williams [eds.] (1987) Great African Thinkers, Volume I: Cheikh Anta Diop (New Brunswick: Transaction Books).

Wainwright, G. A. (1938) The Sky-Religion in Egypt: Its Antiquity and Effects (Cambridge: University Press).

Whicker, F. D. P. (1990) Egypt and the Mountains of the Moon (Braunton: Merlin Books).


Anonymous said...

Changes in hair color after death

The hair color of mummies or buried bodies can change. Hair contains a mixture of black-brown-yellow eumelanin and red pheomelanin. Eumelanin is less chemically stable than pheomelanin and breaks down faster when oxidized. It is for this reason that Egyptian mummies have reddish hair. The color of hair changes faster under extreme conditions. It changes more slowly under dry oxidizing conditions (such as in burials in sand or in ice) than under wet reducing conditions (such as burials in wood or plaster coffins).

Anonymous said...

^ Dis-info beat us by 8 years. Nice try Shlomo.

Anonymous said...

The Paris study is dated and meaningless. You can't presume white skin based on the hair texture or color of corpses, even if that can be determined without question, which in this case it most certainly has not. You cannot even assume the ethnicity of a living person based on hair texture or color, so this magic leap to Nordic heritage is idiotic and not scientific.

Not that it would completely resolve the issue, but why not test for melanin levels in the skin if you are looking for "whiteness." As if Rameses II being white says anything about racial superiority to begin with. But at least you would be making a small amount of sense.

Anonymous said...

A healthy discussion already occurred on this here;f=8;t=003255