The study of hair may sound trifling, but it has thrust British Egyptologist Joann Fletcher into the centre of a heated international controversy. Dr Fletcher, who claimed last week to have found the mummy of Queen Nefertiti, has been banned from pursuing further work in Egypt.
The whereabouts of the remains of Queen Nefertiti, widely believed to have been the most powerful woman in Ancient Egypt, has mystified Egyptologists for years. But Dr Fletcher, field director of York University's mummy research project, says the queen is one of three mummies unearthed in the secret chamber of a tomb on Egypt's Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Her team's reconstruction of Nefertiti's face was broadcast on the Discovery channel, which sponsored the expedition.
Dr Fletcher has an enduring interest in hair, which was a key focus of her Egyptology PhD at the University of Manchester. In this case, her curiosity was initially aroused by the discovery of a Nubian-style wig, traditionally worn by royal women, found beside the mummies.
But her work has been rubbished by Zahi Hawas, the secretary-general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, which authorises all archaeological expeditions to the country. He accused Dr Fletcher of telling a "pack of lies", insisting the mummy was that of a 15-year-old boy. Although British archaeologists have leapt to her defence, and her research team are standing by the results, Dr Fletcher has been banned from conducting further expeditions in Egypt.
Unsurprised by the controversy, she told the Discovery channel: "It's easy for people to take potshots at me. I've really put my head over the parapet for this one."
Dr Fletcher, who went on her first trip to the Valley of the Kings at the age of 15, studied Egyptology at University College London from 1984 to 1987 and specialises in human remains, which she has studied in museums around the world and on site in Egypt, Yemen and South America.