Archaeologies of Hair: The Head and Its Grooming from Ancient to Contemporary Societies

Livia (58 BCE – 29 CE), wife of Augustus


Archaeologies of Hair: An Introduction

By Dr. Steven P. Ashby
Senior Lecturer in Archaeology
University of York

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Ashby, S.P. (ed) (2016) Archaeologies of Hair: the head and its grooming in ancient and contemporary societies, Internet Archaeology 42.


This collection of short articles represents an original attempt to bring together scholarship that is usually divided along lines of specialism in time, place, method, or discipline. The shared focus of its contributions is on hair: more than an infrequently preserved element of human remains, but a widespread (and arguably cross-cultural) symbol of power, of fertility, of identity and the self. Moreover, its care and treatment using various forms of material culture, and its artistic representation in diverse media, offer a unique opportunity to examine the interface between the body and material culture. Where exceptional taphonomic conditions facilitate the preservation of hair and associated organic material, the result is some of the richest assemblages of human remains and associated material culture in the archaeological record (e.g. Wilson et al. 2007; Fletcher 1998). In contrast, ‘everyday’ objects associated with haircare are among the most taphonomically robust, frequently encountered and recognisable personal items known to archaeologists (e.g. Stephens 2008; Ashby 2011), and provide us with insight into the making of personal and bodily identities, even in the absence of human remains themselves. When studied in an interdisciplinary framework, the interpretative potential of this material is clear, but such work has been rare. This collection aims to set a new agenda for cross-disciplinary research focused on the nexus of human and artefactual remains, by highlighting the rich and diverse potential of this material when studied through archaeological, biochemical, artistic, historical, sociological and anthropological lenses.

Towards an Interdisciplinary Study of Hair

In the contemporary world, the primacy of personal appearance is clearly manifest in popular media and advertising, as well as the everyday paraphernalia of grooming (Figure 1). It is a commonplace to critique the images of beauty and grooming to which we are expected to aspire, while the politics and socio-environmental implications of this phenomenon are well studied (e.g. Toerien and Wilkinson 2003; Toerien et al. 2005; Shove 2003). Its antiquity is less well known, and the phenomenon is often popularly presented in terms of narcissism or the thrall of the media: a symptom of 21st-century social malaise. However, power, identity and bodily appearance have always been closely interwoven (compare, for example Arnoldi 1995; Aldhouse-Green 2004; Bartman 2001; Johnsson 2010; Olivelle 1998; Coates 1999; Pointon 1999; Herzig 2015; Bickle 2007). Personal grooming is referenced in the art, literature, and legal history of diverse cultures, and the associated toolkit (e.g. combs; scarification tools; articles of bodily adornment) is invariably ornate and frequently technologically complex.

Figure 1: A toolkit of contemporary haircare. Image credit: ©Alison Leonard

This thematic collection investigates one element of this phenomenon: the treatment, agency, and interpretative potential of hair. One might expect that this would be well-trodden ground, but while recent decades have seen a number of scholarly studies set in particular temporal and spatial contexts (e.g. Aldhouse-Green 2004; Dutton 2004; Ashby 2014), more synthetic treatments have not been attempted for some time (see for example Leach 1958; Hallpike 1969), and it is rare to see hair playing a central role in wider archaeological discussions of identity and society. Furthermore, while the art-historical study of hair does tend to consider its aesthetics and performance (e.g. Zanker 1995; cf. Bartman 2001), the same is rarely true in archaeological work.

The fact that hair does not play a more central role in the archaeological study of identity is no doubt a result of its chemistry, which renders it an infrequent survivor in archaeological deposits. This is a bias that may be fruitfully addressed through reference to its associated material culture, and its representation in documentary, literary and artistic sources. Indeed, the tools and paraphernalia of haircare are reasonably frequent finds, with the result that in most instances, such equipment is interpreted in straightforward functional terms. For example, in both scholarly and popular studies of medieval and earlier combs, their ‘hygienic’ utility is frequently raised; whatever their morphology, ‘controlling lice’ seems to be a default explanation (Figure 2).

Figure 2: A Viking-age hair comb from Akershus, Norway. Image credit: Steve Ashby, courtesy Kulturhistorisk Museum, Oslo, and a contemporary lice comb. Could these objects really do the same job?

The starting point for this extended, collaborative contribution is that there is more to hair than lice. However, in contrast to the formative historical, archaeological, and anthropological examples enumerated above, this is not an attempt to identify generalising rules, but rather to characterise the diversity of hair behaviour that we may identify across time and space, and to critically consider how we may interpret the rich but fragmentary canon of evidence that is its legacy.

By describing and characterising attitudes to hair in the past and present, as well as the ways in which archaeologists may draw upon hair to inform about other elements of individual lifeways, this collection will generate both general and specific questions about the rationale(s) for investment in haircare, the manufacture and aesthetics of associated equipment, and the artistic and literary depiction of hair as a symbol or trope. Thus, through diverse case studies, we will explore the relationship between hair, identity and narratives of power.

The structure of this collection

The collection is intended to raise awareness of this oversight outlined above, and will be a point of reference for the study of hair, hair behaviour, and its associated material culture. It sets a marker that should catalyse a step change in wider archaeological approaches to society and social change, bringing this important archaeological phenomenon into the spotlight.

The articles included herein are short, intended to open a dialogue between experts with shared interests in diverse contexts as well as with a wider audience to whom these stories might be unfamiliar. The subject matter is diverse in chronology, geography, and source material: contributions cover wigs from Bronze Age Egypt and combs from Roman Britain; the exchange of love tokens in medieval Europe, and the deposition of grooming implements in Anglo-Saxon graves. Our contributors come from diverse backgrounds, and while the balance of the issue is archaeological, there are authors here who would characterise themselves variously as historians, historians of art, biochemists, and sociologists. The articles are consequently diverse in approach — some simply introduce a subject or materials as worthy of further consideration, others propose a theoretical interpretation of a particular suite of evidence, while others still outline the application of novel analytical techniques to the study of hair as both object and subject of study. Indeed, a number of articles move between these positions, or sit confidently on the arts and humanities/natural science interface, facilitated by the combined strengths of their research teams. Such contributions provide instructive models, demonstrating the interdisciplinary potential of such research, and breaking ground for further scholarship of this type.

In a package of contributions on ancient Egypt, Fletcher focuses on hair display and its associated material culture; with Salamone she discusses the construction and use of wigs and hairpins, and with Buckley applies biomolecular technologies to address the use of oils and resins in the treatment of hair and wigs. Birley covers the 1st/2nd-century corpus of wooden haircombs from the Roman fort of Vindolanda, before Williams investigates the associations of grooming technologies in Anglo-Saxon burial, and Nordbladh undertakes a wide-ranging survey of evidence for the significance of hair in Viking-age society. Ashby provides an interdisciplinary discussion of facial hair in early medieval societies, before Knight tackles the issue of hair in late medieval society, through the medium of relics. Lugli offers an alternative disciplinary perspective, in covering hair and its association with water in late 15th-century Italian art, while Brown and Alexander and Wilson demonstrate the ways in which biomolecular methods allow us to access the biographical power of hair. Their work is situated in very different contexts: the hair of a named individual from a 19th-century London cemetery (Brown and Alexander), and that of a South-American child sacrifice (Wilson), which together serve to demonstrate the fallacy of any attempt to apply generalising rules for the significance or ‘meaning’ of hair in the past. This realisation is put into stronger perspective yet by Hielscher’s novel sociological analysis of haircare in the contemporary west.

Notwithstanding the sketching out of this overview, the intention is that the reader engages with the papers in a non-linear fashion; there is no attempt at a consistent narrative, but rather a desire to preserve the diversity of approaches taken by this interdisciplinary range of scholars. The articles form something of a conference in digital form — the contributions should speak to each other, allowing conflicts and resonances to rise to the surface, and to spark ideas about further reading and future projects. It may be navigated by numerous means — you may click through by title, through images, through our graphic timeline, or through the world map. You may also leave a comment.


Aldhouse-Green, M. 2004 ‘Crowning glories: languages of hair in Later Prehistoric Europe’, Proceedings of The Prehistoric Society 70, 299-325.

Arnoldi, M.J. 1995 ‘Crowning Glories: The Head and Hair’ in M.J. Arnoldi and C.M. Kreamer (eds) Crowning Achievements. African Arts of Dressing the Head, Berg. 53-66.

Ashby, S.P. 2011 ‘An atlas of medieval combs from northern Europe’, Internet Archaeology 30

Ashby, S.P. 2014 ‘Technologies of Appearance: hair behaviour in Early-Medieval Britain and Europe’, Archaeological Journal 171, 153-186.

Bartman, E. 2001 ‘Hair and the artifice of Roman female adornment’, American Journal of Archaeology 105, 1-25.

Bickle, P. 2007 ‘I’m your Venus: making surfaces on the body’, Journal of Iberian Archaeology 9/10, Special Issue: Overcoming the Modern Invention of Material Culture: Proceedings of the TAG session, Exeter 2006, 257-270.

Coates, S. 1999 ‘Scissors or sword? The symbolism of a medieval haircut’, History Today 49(5), 7.

Dutton, P.E. 2004 ‘Charlemagne’s Mustache’ in P.E. Dutton (ed) Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age, Palgrave-Macmillan: New York. 3-42.

Fletcher, J., 1998 ‘The Human Hair from the tomb of Tutankhamun: a re-evaluation’ in C. Eyre (ed) Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists, Leuven. 403-407.

Hallpike, C.R. 1969 ‘Social Hair’, Man 4, 256-24.

Herzig, R.M. 2015 ‘Plucked: A History of Hair Removal (Biopolitics)’, NYU Press Jan 16, 2015.

Johnsson, P.H. 2010 ‘Locks of difference: the integral role of hair as a distinguishing feature in Merovingian Gaul’, Ex Post Facto 19, 55-68.

Leach, E.R. 1958 ‘Magical hair’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 88, 147-164.

Olivelle, P. 1998 ‘Hair and Society: Social Significance of Hair in South Asian Traditions’ in A. Hiltebeitel and B.D. Miller (eds) Hair: its Power and Meaning in Asian Cultures, SUNY Press: Albany. 11-49.

Pointon, M. 1999 ‘Materializing mourning: Hair, jewellery and the body’ in M. Kwint, C. Breward and J. Aynsley(eds) Material Memories: Design and Evocation, Berg. 39-57.

Shove, E. 2003 Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience. The Social Organization of Normality, Berg: Oxford.

Stephens, J. 2008 ‘Ancient Roman hairdressing: On (hair)pins and needles’, Journal of Roman Archaeology 21, 111-132.

Toerien, M. and Wilkinson, S. 2003 ‘Gender and body hair: constructing the feminine woman’, Womens Studies International Forum 26(4), 333-344.

Toerien, M., Wilkinson, S., Choi, P.Y. 2005 ‘Body Hair Removal: The ‘Mundane’ Production of Normative Femininity, Sex Roles 52(5-6), 399-406.

Wilson, A.S., Richards, M.P., Stern, B., Janaway, R.C., Pollard, A.M. and Tobin, D.J. 2007 ‘Information on Grauballe man from his hair’ in P. Asingh and N. Lynnerup (eds) Grauballe Man: An Iron Age Bog Body Revisited, Jutland Archaeological Society. 188-195.

Zanker, P. 1995 The Mask of Socrates. The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity, University of California Press: Berkeley.

An Ancient Egyptian Wig: Construction and Reconstruction


By Dr. Joann Fletcher (left) and Filippo Salamone
Fletcher – Honorary Visiting Professor, Egyptologist, University of York

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Fletcher, J. and Salamone, F. (2016) An Ancient Egyptian Wig: Construction and Reconstruction, Internet Archaeology 42.

Although only relatively recently the subject of serious study, hair and its grooming can be one of the best ways of gaining an understanding of past peoples. This is certainly the case with ancient Egypt, where forms of adornment and grooming regimes provide an alternative means of studying those beyond the 1% literate elite, and where its dry climate preserves human remains whether artificially mummified or not. Often present is the hair, which Egyptians throughout society treated in a wide variety of ways for a wide variety of reasons. The way in which the resulting styles were then portrayed in artistic representations can be used to establish a chronology for the whole pharaonic period (c.3100-30 BC). This can then be compared to the various types of hair remains to have survived (Fletcher 1995).

As well as styling their own hair, the Egyptians also employed false hair. The earliest known example is a set of hair extensions from c.3400 BC, discovered in a plundered female burial at Hierakonpolis (Fletcher 1998). Although such braids were subsequently attached to the natural hair of women and occasionally men throughout society, complete wigs were significantly more time-consuming to create and therefore more costly, with their use restricted largely to the elite.

Predominantly worn by elite men and women as status markers within Egypt’s well-defined social hierarchy, wigs catered for the desire for elaborate hairstyles while serving a practical purpose. A wig shielded the shaven or cropped head from the harmful effects of direct sunlight and, unlike a head scarf, its mesh-like foundation base allowed body heat to escape. The practice also maintained high levels of cleanliness, the reduction or removal of the natural hair reducing the incidence of head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis) whose need to live close to the scalp’s blood supply as their food source was countered by a wig that could be removed at any time (Fletcher 1994). Wigs therefore became a way of maintaining ritual purity with a temple environment, in which the ‘Egyptian priests shave their bodies all over every other day to guard against the presence of lice, or anything else equally unpleasant, while they are about their religious duties’ (Herodotus II.36, trans. de Selincourt 1954, 143).

As the subject of study since 1986, with all known examples of wigs, extensions and hairpieces recorded (Fletcher 1995, 353-424), the majority of wigs are now housed in the Egyptian Museum Cairo (Lucas 1930). Yet one of the most intact examples is in the British Museum (Figure 1), having been obtained prior to 1835 on the West Bank of Thebes (modern Luxor). Although sometimes described as a ‘woman’s wig’ (e.g. Freed 1982, 196), it is in fact set in the ‘double’ or ‘duplex’ style typical for male officials during the 14th century BC, with its two separate sections of curls and plaits (Fletcher 1994, 33; for a typical style of ‘woman’s wig’, see Buckley and Fletcher this issue).

Figure 1: Wig of an 18th dynasty male official from Thebes (British Museum EA.2560). Image credit: J. Fletcher/Ancient Adornments Project.

Although the wig is extremely fragile and cannot be removed from the wooden display mount to which it was fastened in the 19th century, detailed examination by a professional wigmaker in 1975 nonetheless revealed construction methods as sophisticated as modern examples (Cox 1977, 70). Previous suggestions that a wig of this size (circumference 59.69cm) could be heavy enough to cause parietal thinning of the skull (Smith 2000, 36) therefore seemed unlikely, so when the wig was first examined by the authors in 1987, its weight was calculated at between 0.5kg and 1kg, revealing it was also as light as modern counterparts (Fletcher 1995, 386, 397).

Following a second, more detailed, study by the authors in 2008, an exact replica of the wig in its original condition was created as part of the ‘Ancient Adornments Project’ (Fletcher 2015, 69). With no evidence of any interior padding with palm fibres or grass noted in later examples, nor the ‘sheep’s wool’ (British Museum 1922, 264) referred to in early editions of the museum’s guide book, the British Museum wig was constructed entirely of human hair (Cox 1977, 67). As an expensive commodity in Egypt’s barter economy, hair was listed alongside gold and incense in ancient accounts’ lists (Griffith 1898, 39, 48-50), and no doubt obtained from those wishing to exchange their hair as part of a trading transaction. In the case of the British Museum wig, some of the hair may also have been supplied by the owner of the wig.

Once a sufficient amount had been collected, the hair would have been cleaned and then separated into several hundred individual lengths containing approximately 400 hairs in each length (Cox 1977, 69). The wig was then manufactured on a wooden wig mount, again very similar to modern examples. Firstly the foundation base was created using multiple lengths of plaited hair laid horizontally and vertically to create the characteristic mesh, each length fixed in place by a combination of either knotting or folding the plaits back on themselves. The mesh was further secured with an application of a ‘setting’ mixture made of two-thirds beeswax and one-third imported conifer resin. Warmed prior to application it then set hard, the melting point of beeswax of between 140°F and 149°F (60°-65°C) making it capable of withstanding even Egypt’s extreme climate (Cox 1977, 69-70).

To anchor the subsequent lengths of hair to this mesh foundation, an inch of the root end of each length was looped around the horizontal mesh and pressed between thumb and forefinger against the waxed hair stem. A ‘sub-strand’ of approximately 15 hairs was then wound around the hair stem to secure it further (Cox 1977, 69).

Figure 2: Reconstructing the wig as the plaited underpanel is attached to the reticulated mesh base. Image credit: F. Salamone/Ancient Adornments Project.

With ‘several hundred’ (Cox 1977, 67) lengths of hair originally ranging from approximately 30 to 38cm in length attached at the back and sides of the mesh base from ear to ear, these would have been plaited individually once in situ to create the underpanel (although the reconstruction employed pre-plaited lengths of hair for reasons of economy). The remaining lengths of naturally wavy hair of approximately 18cm in length could then be added to create the top section, each of which was then individually styled to create annular ‘stand-up’ curls (approximately 1.27cm in diameter).

Figure 3: Historical hairstylist Filippo Salamone recreating the British Museum wig as part of the ‘Ancient Adornments Project’ Image credit: Ancient Adornments Project/Firefly.

The recreation of the wig took a professional hairstylist and wigmaker approximately 200 hours or around one month to complete, which would obviously have been even greater if the plaits had been styled once attached to the mesh as in the case of the original (Figures 2-3). Known to have been produced in wig-making workshops (Laskowska-Kusztal 1978) and within the hairdressing facilities of temples, such high-status headwear was worn on a regular basis by society’s male and female elite for over two thousand years and was clearly of great importance. It is therefore time scholars paid it as much attention as the ancients themselves so obviously did.


British Museum 1922 British Museum Guide to the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Egyptian Rooms, and the Coptic Room, London: The Trustees.

Cox, J.S. 1977 ‘The construction of an ancient Egyptian wig (c.1400 BC) in the British Museum’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 63. 67-70.

Fletcher, J. 1994 ‘A tale of wigs, hair and lice’, Egyptian Archaeology 5. 31-33.

Fletcher, J. 1995 Ancient Egyptian Hair: a study in style, form and function. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Manchester.

Fletcher, J. 1998 ‘The secrets of the locks unravelled’, Nekhen News: Newsletter of the Friends of Nekhen 10. 4.

Fletcher, J. 2002 ‘Ancient Egyptian hair and wigs’, The Ostracon: Journal of the Egyptian Study Society 13(2). 2-8.

Fletcher, J. 2005 ‘The Decorated Body in Ancient Egypt: hairstyles, cosmetics and tattoos’, in L. Cleland, M. Harlow and L. Llewellyn-Jones (eds), The Clothed Body in the Ancient World, Oxford, Oxford University Press. 3-13.

Fletcher, J. 2015 ‘The most democratic form of adornment: hair and wigs in Ancient Egypt’, El-Rawi: Egypt’s Heritage Review 7. 66-71.

Freed, R. 1982 ‘Wigs and hair accessories’, in E. Brovarski, S. Doll and R. Freed (eds), Egypt’s Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom 1558-1985 BC, Boston: The Museum Of Fine Arts. 196-198.

Griffith, F.L. 1898 Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob, London: Bernard Quaritch.

Herodotus (trans. de Sélincourt, A.) 1954 The Histories, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Laskowska-Kusztal, E. 1978 ‘Un Atelier de perruquier à Deir el-Bahari’, Etudes et Travaux 10, 84-120.

Lucas, A. 1930 ‘Ancient Egyptian wigs’, Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte 30. 190-196.

Smith, G.E. 2000 The Royal Mummies. London: Duckworth.

The Hair and Wig of Meryt: Grooming in the 18th Dynasty


By Dr. Stephen Buckley and Dr. Joann Fletcher
Buckley – Research Fellow, Archaeology and Egyptology, University of York
Fletcher – Honorary Visiting Professor, Egyptologist, University of York

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Buckley, S. and Fletcher, J. (2016) The Hair and Wig of Meryt: Grooming in the 18th Dynasty, Internet Archaeology 42.

As part of a long-term study of the collections of Turin’s Museo Egizio, the authors have particularly focused on the contents of the tomb of the 14th-century BC couple Kha and Meryt, discovered intact in 1906 at the workman’s village of Deir el-Medina, modern Luxor (Schiaparelli 1927; Vassilika 2010). In addition to the mummies of the couple themselves, which have never been unwrapped, the tomb contained over five hundred items, combining equipment made specifically for burial with items the couple had used in their daily lives.

Among Meryt’s belongings were her well-stocked cosmetic chest and items relating to her hairdressing regime — her wig (Figure 1 a-b) and wooden wig box, and two baskets containing her hairpins, razors and wooden combs (Figure 2).


Figure 1: The wig of Meryt: (a) side view and (b) back view, from Deir el-Medina c.1360 BC (Turin Museo Egizio S.8499). Image credit: J. Fletcher

As the most impressive woman’s wig to have survived from pharaonic times (Schiaparelli 1927, 101), Meryt’s long wig closely replicates the numerous portrayals of the long full ‘enveloping’ style found particularly in 14th-century BC sculpture and tomb scenes (Fletcher 1995, 260-3). Made entirely of dark brown human hair (Carpignano and Rabino Massa 1981, 229), the original archaeologist Ernesto Schiaparelli claimed that, upon its discovery, Meryt’s wig ‘still shines with the perfumed oils that were applied to it’ (‘è tuttora lucent per gli oli profumati di cui era stata cosparsa e’, Schiaparelli 1927, 101).

Figure 2: The wooden combs of Meryt, from Deir el-Medina c.1360 BC (Turin Museo Egizio S.8377). Image credit: J. Fletcher.

It was created on a foundation base along a long thin plait forming the central ‘parting’ to which individual lengths of hair were attached at right angles by means of slip knots. To this foundation were attached separate sections of hair approximately 54cm in length, possibly having first been plaited when wet to achieve a ‘crimped’ effect, and the ends of each section tightly twisted to secure them (Chiotasso et al. 1992, 101; Fletcher 1995, 388). A further braid made up of three thicker plaits was attached at the crown to hang down at the back of the head (Fletcher 1995, 388). Yet during the authors’ first examination of the wig in 1994 and again in 2013, it was noted that the quantity of hair employed combined with the distribution of the individual sections of hair along the central parting would not have completely concealed Meryt’s head when worn (Figure 1b).

The wig was discovered in a tall shrine-shaped wig box of acacia wood inscribed with Meryt’s name, its 110cm tall dimensions allowing the wig to hang freely within when placed over two parallel wooden supports covered by linen that made up the wig mount (Schiaparelli 1927, 101-2). At the bottom of the wig box lay further ‘pieces of plaits and clumps of hair’ (‘frammenti di trecce e batuffoli di cappelli’, Schiaparelli 1927, 101), the absence of any visible means of anchoring these plaited lengths to either the wig or natural hair suggesting that they are either incomplete or unfinished hair extensions, or may alternatively have been Meryt’s natural hair, collected in life and retained for burial with her, as was regular practice (Fletcher and Montserrat 1998, 406).

There were also two baskets that between them contained a large, carefully folded sheet of fringed linen stained with oil and described as ‘Meryt’s bathrobe’ (‘accappatoio’, Schiaparelli 1927, 106); further pieces of plaited hair; seven hairpins, four of bronze and three bone; two bronze razors; and three wooden combs; a further comb with broken teeth had been found in Meryt’s aforementioned cosmetic chest (Schiaparelli 1927, 109). As a key item of hairdressing equipment employed throughout pharaonic history, ornate combs were sometimes worn in the hair as a form of adornment but were mainly used to keep the hair free of tangles or indeed head lice and their eggs, most easily removed with the fine teeth of such combs and often recovered from between the combs’ teeth.

Although Meryt’s body has never been unwrapped, a succession of X-rays and CT scans have revealed a broad collar necklace, finger rings, a jewelled belt and two sets of large gold earrings, suggesting each ear had been pierced twice in a fashion restricted to the second half of the 18th dynasty, c.1400-1335 BC (Fletcher 2004, 290, 351). Following recent research, it also appears that, like her husband Kha, Meryt had been mummified in a natron salt solution that had preserved her internal organs in situ while causing her bones to become disarticulated and losing much of the original soft tissue (Bianucci et al. 2015). So in order to gain more detailed information about Meryt’s original hairstyle and grooming regime, it was decided to re-examine her wig and comb utilising GC/MS analysis, which requires sample sizes less than 0.1mg (Buckley and Evershed 2001).


Analysis of the lower lengths of hair employed in Meryt’s wig (S.8499) revealed the presence of a plant oil mixed with a small amount of ‘balsam’ (Figure 3a).

Figure 3a/b: Reconstructed gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) total ion chromatograms (TIC) of the trimethylsilylated total lipid extracts of (a) hair from Meryt’s wig (S.8499) and (b) debris from Meryt’s comb (S.8377). Peak identities (‘n’ indicates carbon chain length; where shown, i indicates degree of unsaturation): filled triangles, Cn:i indicates fatty acids; filled squares, Cn indicates 9,10-dicarboxylic acids; C18:0 9,10-di-OH (t + e) indicates 9,10-dihydroxyoctadecanoic acid (threo and erythro isomers); C:n:i MAGs indicate monoacyl glycerols and Cn WE indicates a wax ester. Also shown are the structures of three aromatic acids identified: 4-hydroxybenzoic acid, vanillic acid (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzoic acid) and protocatechuic acid (3,4-dihydroxybenzoic acid); the letters ms represent monosaccharides and ds represent disaccharides. Glycerol and cholesterol are also shown. (Click Image to Enlarge)

Analysis of debris from between the teeth of Meryt’s wooden comb (S.8377) found in Meryt’s cosmetic chest revealed the presence of a plant oil, a plant gum, a ‘balsam’ and beeswax (Figure 3b), together with cholesterol.


The discovery of a plant oil mixed with a small amount of ‘balsam’ on the wig is quite different from the beeswax and resin hair fixative mixture employed in the case of the contemporary man’s wig now in the British Museum. It may therefore have served a different purpose, perhaps as a perfumed moisturising treatment to keep the hair in good condition, as in fact was originally suggested (Schiaparelli 1927, 101). In the case of the debris from Meryt’s comb, the presence of cholesterol, one of the major compounds found on the human scalp and skin and notably abundant at the root end of the hair, indicates that Meryt had used the comb in life, and, unlike other elite women of the time, had not shaved her head completely (Fletcher 2004, 110, 185), but retained at least some of her own hair. This is also borne out by the style of her wig, which was designed to be worn over some amount of natural hair, albeit kept fairly short presumably by means of Meryt’s bronze razors, used to trim hair prior to the introduction of shears or scissors (Fletcher 1995, 442). Meryt may then have combed her own short hair flat, smoothing it down with an application of the plant oil, plant gum, balsam and beeswax mixture that was also found between the comb’s teeth.

Although analysis of both Meryt and Kha’s possessions is ongoing, these preliminary results demonstrate the way in which appropriate forms of analysis can help interpret patterns of object usage, providing new insight into ancient grooming regimes and accessing an intimate and largely private part of daily life as lived some three and a half thousand years ago.


Bianucci, R., Habicht, M., Buckley, S., Fletcher, J. Seiler, R., Öhrström, L., Vassilika, E., Böni, T. and Rühli, F. 2015 ‘Shedding new light on the 18th Dynasty mummies of the Royal Architect Kha and his spouse Merit’, PLoS ONE 10(7) e0131916

Buckley, S.A. and Evershed, R. 2001 ‘Organic chemistry of embalming agents in Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman mummies’, Nature 413(6858). 837-841.

Carpignano, G. and Rabino Massa, E. 1981 ‘Analisi di un campione di capelli della parrucca appartenente alla moglie dell’architetto Kha’, Oriens Antiquus 20. 229-230.

Chiotasso, L., Chiotasso, P., Pedrini, L., Rigoni, G. and Sarnelli, C. 1992 ‘La parrucca di Merit’, Sesto Congresso Internazionale di Egittologia I. Turin. 99-105.

Curto, S. and Mancini, M. 1968 ‘News of Kha’ and Meryt’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 54. 77-81.

Fletcher, J. 1995 Ancient Egyptian Hair: a study in style, form and function. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Manchester.

Fletcher, J. 2000 ‘Hair’, in P. Nicholson and I. Shaw (eds) Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 495-501.

Fletcher, J. 2004 The Search for Nefertiti. London: Hodder.

Fletcher, J. and Montserrat, D. 1998 ‘The human hair from the tomb of Tutankhamun: a re-evaluation’ in C. Eyre (ed) Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists. 401-7.

Schiaparelli, E. 1927 La Tomba Intatta dell’ Architetto Kha nella Necropoli di Tebe. Turin.

Vassilika, E. 2010 The Tomb of Kha. Firenze: Scala Group.

The Egyptian Hair Pin: Practical, Sacred, Fatal

By Dr. Joann Fletcher
Honorary Visiting Professor, Egyptologist
University of York

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Fletcher, J. (2016) The Egyptian Hair Pin: practical, sacred, fatal, Internet Archaeology 42.

Generally regarded as little more than a mundane tool employed in daily life, the humble hairpin occasionally played a rather more prominent role in history than has perhaps been appreciated. As the most ancient implements associated with hair styling, simple pins of bone and ivory were commonly employed in Egypt by c.4000 BC as a means of securing long hair in an upswept style (e.g. Petrie and Mace 1901, 21, 34). Although their occasional use by men undermines the assumption that hairpins are ‘a relatively certain example of a “gendered” artefact’ (Wilfong 1997, 67), the vast majority have been found in female burials. They can be made of bone and ivory, wood, steatite, glass, gold, silver and bronze, and two 12cm long bronze examples were found within the hair of Princess Ahmosi c.1550 BC (Fletcher 1995, 376, 441) while the hair of an anonymous woman at Gurob c.AD 110 had been secured in a bun with pins of bone, tortoiseshell and silver (Walker and Bierbrier 1997, 209).

Figure 1: Portrait panel of a woman named Demos, portraying a hairpin, from Hawara, c.AD 80-100 (Cairo CG.33237) Image credit: J. Fletcher.

Reflecting contemporary representations in which the pins are usually concealed within the hair mass and only occasionally allowed to protrude in a decorative manner to reveal their terminals (Figure 1) (e.g. Walker and Bierbrier 1997, 57-59; Fletcher 2008, plate 18), such visibility was also the case with a crescent-shaped ‘orbis’ hairpiece again found at Gurob (Figure 2), a length of plaited hair set with 62 bronze pins described as ‘probably the only example surviving of a well-known hairdressing of the period of Trajan’ (Petrie 1927, 5; Fletcher 2000, 499).

Figure 2: Part of a fragmentary ‘orbis’ of plaited hair set with 62 bronze pins, from Gurob, c.AD 100. Image credit: J. Fletcher.

As early as c.2000 BC, hairpins were also portrayed as a functioning tool, the tomb scenes of Queen Nefru at Deir el-Bahari revealing the way her hairdresser Henut used a large hairpin to hold back a section of the queen’s hair during the styling process (Figure 3) (Riefstahl 1952; 1956). The contemporary burial of fellow royal wife Kawit at the same site again featured scenes in which a hairdresser employs such a pin to style the coiffure of a queen who was also a priestess of the goddess Hathor (Riefstahl 1956: 16; Gauthier-Laurent 1938: 676, 688-89), as was a third queen, Kemsit, likewise buried at Deir el-Bahari, Hathor’s spiritual home.

Figure 3: Hairdresser Henut using a hairpin to style the hair of Queen Nefru, from Deir el-Bahari, c.2000 BC (Brooklyn Acc. No. 54.49). Image credit: J. Fletcher.

The women’s scenes emphasised the importance of hairdressing in the cult of a goddess known as ‘She of the Beautiful Hair’ (Fletcher 1995, 55; Riefstahl 1956, 17), whose attributes were increasingly absorbed by her fellow goddess Isis ‘the fair tressed’ (Griffiths 1975, 124) during the first millennium BC. Even worshipped in its own right at Abydos, Isis’ hair was groomed with equipment carried in ritual processions by her priestesses who ‘declared by their gestures and motions of their arms and fingers that they were ordained and ready to dress and adorn the goddess’s hair’ (Golden Ass XI.9, Apuleius trans. Adlington 1996, 190; Griffiths 1975, 81, 183).

With such goddesses portrayed on items ranging from the mirror handles to the hairpins that played a prominent role in the lives of female worshippers as well as in the daily lives of women throughout the Graeco-Roman world, hairpins continued to be used to secure the hair and if pierced with small holes could also be used as large sewing needles to stitch sections of hair into elaborate styles (Stephens 2008).

Yet beyond the realm of the everyday, the hairpin became a weapon with which two of the most famous women of antiquity were able to make spectacular political points as the Roman Republic imploded amidst state-sponsored murder and proscription. Instigated by Octavian and Mark Antony, the assassination of the orator Cicero in 43 BC was followed by Antony’s demand that the dead man’s head should be hung from the speakers’ platform in the Forum in Rome in revenge for the repeated accusations Cicero had made against Antony and his third wife Fulvia. But even before the head was removed, Fulvia ‘set it on her knees, opened the mouth, and pulled out the tongue, which she pierced with the pins that she used for her hair’ (Roman History 47.8.4, Cassius Dio, trans. Cary 1917, 133). Similarly violent retribution was also carried out by the widow Charite who, seeking out her husband’s murderer, ‘took a great needle from her head and pricked out both his eyes’ (Golden Ass VIII.13, Apuleius trans. Adlington 1996, 125), the sharpness of such ‘needles’ again highlighted when Psyche pricks Encolpius’ cheek (Satyricon 21, Petronius, trans. Heseltine 1913, 29), and a downtrodden hairdresser punished by her Roman mistress who ‘sticks a needle in her arm in a fit of temper’, drawing both ‘blood and tears’ (Ars Amatoria 3.240-242, Ovid trans. Lewis May 2006, 91).

But by far the most dramatic use of a hairpin in history is surely the means by which Antony’s fifth and final wife Cleopatra VII, Egypt’s last native-born pharaoh, most likely took her life (Fletcher 2008, 315-18). Although the ancient sources admit ‘what really took place is known to no-one’ (Plutarch, trans. Dryden 1952, 779) since Cleopatra was already under house arrest, imagery of her snake-based death is based on descriptions of her posthumous wax effigy paraded around Rome. Featuring snakes coiling up her arms in the manner of Isis, who Cleopatra had claimed to represent, it was a means to express her cause of death to the Roman crowds, although it seems highly unlikely that the venom was administered directly by a snake itself. Despite assumptions it must have been smuggled to her inside a small basket, equally unlikely are claims such a snake was an asp, the North African viper, whose venom causes vomiting and incontinence before death. Like many Hellenistic monarchs well-versed in toxicology, Cleopatra would surely have selected the venom of the Egyptian cobra which causes the drowsiness and gradual paralysis felt far more suitable for the stage-managed suicide she had planned in the company of her two servants. Since a cobra with sufficient venom to kill a human is around two metres long, with venom discharged in its first bite meaning that three such creatures would have been needed to kill all three women (Whitehorne 2001, 192), alternative theories suggested a snake was already in her quarters, ‘kept in a vase, and that she vexed and pricked it with a golden spindle till it seized her arm’ (Plutarch, trans. Dryden 1952, 779). As an embellishment of the most believable ancient accounts, these claim that ‘she had smeared a pin with some poison’ and ‘had previously worn the pin in her hair as usual’ (Roman History 51.14.2, Cassius Dio trans. Scott-Kilvert 1987, 74-75; see also Cassius Dio trans. Cary 1917, 40); alternatively that ‘she carried poison in a hollow bodkin about which she wound her hair’ (Plutarch, trans. Dryden 1952, 779). With such hairpins concealed within her standard upswept ‘bun’ coiffure, the Roman soldiers who searched Cleopatra’s clothing for concealed weapons prior to her arrest would presumably have known that the bound-up hair of a married woman was completely inviolable within Roman society (Sebesta 2001, 49). For despite her status as Egyptian pharaoh, Cleopatra had also been the last wife of Mark Antony, Rome’s leading general.

It also seems rather significant that she had chosen to die with her hairdresser Eiras, previously ridiculed by Octavian who had claimed ‘the generals we will fight are little more than Cleopatra’s hairdressing girl’, yet who nonetheless proved instrumental in depriving him of his greatest Triumph. For as royal hairdresser, Eiras would have supplied the hairpin with which Cleopatra ‘made a small scratch in her arm and caused the poison to enter the blood’ (Roman History 51.14, Cassius Dio trans. Scott-Kilvert 1987, 75; see also Cassius Dio trans. Cary 1917, 40), an apparently mundane hairdressing tool swiftly terminating three thousand years of pharaonic rule and changing the course of western history.


Apuleius, (trans. Adlington, W.) 1996 The Golden Ass, Ware: Wordsworth Editions.

Cassius Dio (trans. Cary, E.) 1917 Roman History V-VI, Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Cassius Dio (trans. Scott-Kilvert, I.) 1987 The Roman History: the Reign of Augustus, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Fletcher, J. 1995 Ancient Egyptian Hair: a study in style, form and function, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Manchester.

Fletcher, J. 2000 ‘Hair’ in P. Nicholson and I. Shaw, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 495-501.

Fletcher, J. 2008 Cleopatra the Great, London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Gauthier-Laurent, M. 1938 ‘Les Scènes de coiffure féminine dans l’ancienne Egypte’, Mélanges Maspero I, 2, Cairo: IFAO. 673-96.

Griffiths, J.G. 1975 Apuleius of Madauros: The Isis-Book (Metamorphoses, Book XI), Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Ovid (trans. Lewis May, J.) 2006 The Love Books of Ovid (the Loves, The Art of Love, Love’s Cure and the Art of Beauty), Stilwell: Digireads.

Petrie, W.M.F. 1927 Objects of Daily Use, London: British School Of Archaeology In Egypt.

Petrie, W.M.F. and Mace, A.C. 1901 Diospolis Parva: The Cemeteries of Abadiyeh and Hu, 1898-1899, London: Egypt Exploration Fund.

Petronius (trans. Heseltine, M.) 1913 Satyricon, London: William Heinemann.

Plutarch 1952 The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans: The Dryden Translation, Chicago: William Benton.

Riefstahl, E. 1952 ‘An Ancient Egyptian hairdresser’, Bulletin of the Brooklyn Museum 13(4). 7-16.

Riefstahl, E. 1956 ‘Two hairdressers of the Eleventh Dynasty’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 15. 10-17.

Sebesta, J. 2001 ‘Symbolism in the costume of the Roman woman’, in J. Sebesta and L. Bonfante (eds), The World of Roman Costume, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 46-53.

Stephens, J. 2008 ‘Ancient Roman hairdressing: on (hair)pins and needles’, Journal of Roman Archaeology 21. 111-32.

Walker, S. and Bierbrier, M. 1997 Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, London: Routledge.

Whitehorne, J. 2001 Cleopatras, London: Routledge.

Wilfong, T. 1997 Women and Gender in Ancient Egypt: from Prehistory to Late Antiquity, Ann Arbor: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Keeping Up Appearances on the Romano-British Frontier

By Barbara Birley
Vindolanda Trust

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Birley, B. (2016) Keeping Up Appearances on the Romano-British Frontier, Internet Archaeology 42.


Roman Vindolanda lies on the Stanegate Road to the south of Hadrian’s Wall, on the northern frontier of the Romano-British province. It has complex stratigraphy with at least ten layers of occupation dating from around AD 85 to its abandonment in the 5th century, but it is the first five levels from AD 85 to AD 130-139 that have produced some of the most significant organic objects from the Empire, including the Vindolanda writing tablets (Birley 2009). One of the distinctive aspects of the Vindolanda collection is the large number of wooden hair combs found in these levels.

Over 160 boxwood hair combs have been unearthed from the site. Resembling modern nit combs, these small objects had the primary function of cleaning and detangling hair, but further examination of the collection allows for the exploration of different aspects of style and function.

Common box (Buxus sempervirens) was popular during Roman times, due to its smooth but hard nature, and was sought after for making not only combs but many other objects (Pliny 16, 70: trans. Rackham 1968). It does not splinter and catch the hair, and it can be dulled at the point, which stops the comb from injuring the scalp. Indeed, in classical literature, the term ‘buxus’ is often used for combs (Pugsley 2003, 21).

The Vindolanda Combs

All of the combs in the Vindolanda collection are the so-called ‘H combs’, named because they resemble the letter H. The vertical lines of the H are the terminals and the horizontal line is the central bar. The H comb has two sets of teeth, one fine and the other coarse. Guidelines have been placed on most for accurate carving but on some examples the carver has gone over the lines (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Typical H comb. Image credit: Vindolanda Trust.

The identifying marks on the combs most often appear on the central bar. The objects can show decorations, makers’ marks or graffiti. Decorated central bars can include many different motifs, including waves, stars, lines and circle-in-circle patterns. Many use more than one form of decoration.

The Vindolanda collection shows a greater variation of central bar adaptation and decoration than many other collections (Derks and Vos 2010; Fellmann 2009; Pugsley 2003). This could indicate the desire that personal combs should be identifiable. As these objects were undoubtedly used to help with the removal of head lice, which would have been prevalent within a military community (Fell 1991; Mumcuoglu and Hadas 2011), the ability to mark individual combs would have been useful to reduce the spread of parasites.

The makers’ marks are very faint and are best seen through magnification. The collection at Vindolanda currently includes seven combs that have makers’ marks. These are usually located on the central bar and state the name of the individual maker (Figure 2). Most of the combs with stamps have been marked on both sides of the comb. It is also noticeable that these combs are of very high quality, possibly showing that the maker only wanted to identify with superior work.

Figure 2: Comb with maker’s mark. Image credit: Vindolanda Trust.

Some of the combs from the collection show other forms of modification. Three combs have holes drilled through at the top, presumably for suspension. This would have been a functionally efficient way to attach your comb, avoid loss and prevent others from using it. One of the combs from Vindolanda shows that it was originally a standard H comb but its coarse teeth, and probably the terminals, were intentionally removed, leaving a decorative comb that could have been worn in the hair.

However, the most elaborate comb from the collection is an example with fretted terminals and a highly decorative central bar (Figure 3). Here, a very thin copper-alloy plaque depicts a standing figure in military dress, complete with shield and spear (Blake 2014, 95). The reverse may also originally have had a plaque, but this has not survived. A similar comb was found in Carlisle, but on this the copper-alloy plaque represented three conjoining aediculae, separated by twisting columns and framing images of deities (Pugsley 2003, 22).

Figure 3: Comb with fretted terminals and decorative central bar. Image credit: Vindolanda Trust.

Archaeological Evidence

Roman boxwood combs have been found not only in Romano-British contexts including London, Carlisle and Ribchester (Pugsley 2003, 145-150) but also in other parts of the empire, including Vetchen (modern Holland: Derks and Vos 2010), Vindonissa (modern Switzerland: Fellmann 2009, 68-69) and eastern provinces including modern Israel (Mumcuoglu and Hadas 2011, 226-227). An increasing body of evidence shows that these objects were more common than once perceived. Questions have been raised, such as who was using them and whether they were part of the woman’s mundus muliebris (toiletries box), or of the grooming ritual of men (Derks and Vos 2010). Evidence from Vindolanda would suggest both. Numerous research projects have looked at sexing material culture within Roman forts (Allason-Jones 1995; Allison 2015), including case studies from Vindolanda (Birley 2013; Driel-Murray 1992; 1997). This evidence is dispelling the myth that the Roman military was a male-only society and is showing that both women and children were present in large numbers on the frontier.

Two wooden buildings dating to c.AD 105-120 were uncovered during the excavations in 2012/2013. The first was a circular house with a small ditch to the north and west. The other was a rectilinear building with a later modification of a cross wall. The buildings were situated in between the fort wall and the Stanegate Road. The findspots for the nine wooden combs from this area are shown in Figure 4. Also from here were over 80 leather boots and shoes (belonging to both genders), large caches of buried hazelnuts in sealed pits, preserved animal bones, pre-Hadrianic pottery, brooches, perfume bottles, hairpins, beads, styli, stylus tablets, ink pens and an ink tablet. The combs come from the rubbish deposits outside the buildings and inside probable single-family residences. This distribution could be interpreted as the result of both casual loss and intentional removal from the house. Combined with the other objects from these contexts, they speak of a rich material culture, literacy and access to imported goods, as well as objects that were probably used by both men and women.

Figure 4: Vindolanda comb findspots. Image credit: Vindolanda Trust.


These small portable pieces of material culture would have been easy for an individual to pack and carry when their garrison was moved on to a new post. They also show that the people here had disposable income, and that the money spent on these functional but imported luxury goods was significant to the people at Vindolanda. Cleanliness was important to them, as we see from other objects and the use of bathhouses on the frontier (Allason-Jones 1999), but combs also relate to the ritual of the everyday, and show that dressing one’s hair was an important signifier of identity, whether soldier or non-combatant, male or female.


Allason-Jones, L. 1995 ”’Sexing” small finds’, Theoretical Roman Archaeology: Second Conference Proceedings, Worldwide Archaeology Series, Vol. 14, Aldershot: Avebury/Ashgate. 22-32

Allason-Jones, L. 1999 ‘Healthcare in the Roman North’, Britannia 30. 133-146.

Allison, P.M. 2015 ‘Characterizing Roman artifacts to investigate gender practices in context without sexed bodies’, American Journal of Archaeology 119(1), Archaeological Institute of America. 102-123.

Birley, A. 2013 ‘The fort wall: a great divide?’, in R. Collins and M. Symonds (eds), Breaking Down Barriers, Hadrian’s Wall in the 21st century, Journal of Roman Archaeology supplementary series 93. 85-104.

Birley, R. 2009 Vindolanda, a Roman Frontier Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, Stroud: Amberley.

Blake, J. 2014 The Excavations of 2007-2012 in the Vicus or Extramural Settlement, Brampton: Roman Army Museum Publications.

Derks, D. and Vos, W. 2010 ‘Wooden combs from the Roman fort of Vechten: the bodily appearance of soldiers’, Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2, 53-57.

Driel-Murray, C. van, 1992 ‘Gender in question’, Theoretical Roman Archaeology: Second Conference Proceedings, Worldwide Archaeology Series, Vol. 14, Aldershot: Avebury/Ashgate. 3-21.

Driel-Murray, C. van, 1997 ‘Women in forts’, Jahresbericht/gesellschaft Pro Vindonissa. 55-61.

Fell, V. 1991 ‘Two Roman ‘nit’ combs from excavations at Ribchester (RBG80 and RB89), Lancashire’, Ancient Monuments Laboratory Report. 87/91.

Fellmann, R. 2009 Römische Kleinfunde aus Holz aus dem Legionslager Vindonissa, Brugg: Gesellschaft Pro Vindonissa.

Mumcuoglu, K.Y. and Hadas, G. 2011 ‘Head louse (Pediculus humanus capilis) remains in a louse comb from the Roman period excavated in the Dead Sea region’, Israel Exploration Journal 61(2). 223-229.

Rackham, H. (trans.) 1968 Pliny: Natural History Vol. IV Books 12-16, Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library.

Pugsley, P. 2003 Roman Domestic Wood: Analysis of the morphology, manufacture and use of selected categories of domestic wooden artefacts with particular reference to the material from Roman Britain, British Archaeological Reports International Series 1118, Oxford: Archaeopress.

Tressed for Death in Early Anglo-Saxon England

By Dr. Howard Williams
Professor of Archaeology
University of Chester

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Williams, H. (2016) Tressed for Death in Early Anglo-Saxon England, Internet Archaeology 42.

Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, ‘barbarian’ communities across Britain and north-west Europe employed rich and vibrant metalwork (including cruciform, square-headed, saucer and button brooches, wrist-clasps, pendants, buckets and drinking horns) that sometimes included striking representations of humanoid heads with exaggerated beards and flowing locks. Variously interpreted as ideal representations of contemporary elites, cultic masks, legendary heroes, protective spirits, and/or pagan deities, such images remain enigmatic. Despite uncertainty over their interpretation, they might well be taken to reveal communities in which head hair — its display and transformation — were linked to important rites of passage and practices in constituting, communicating and commemorating dimensions of personhood in life and death (see Brundle 2013). However, a systematic and widespread review has yet to be written about early medieval grooming practices and hair management, fully integrating such representations with the far broader evidence for artefacts used in grooming and their archaeological contexts between the 5th and 7th centuries in southern and eastern Britain (but see Geake 1995, 143–6; Ashby 2014). Fortunately, explorations of the varying and shifting significance of grooming as both practice and metaphor in dealing with the dead have recently begun (Williams 2003; 2007; Ashby 2014).

This research field has been stifled by the persistence in regarding antler and bone combs and iron, bronze and (more rarely) silver toilet implements (including miniature items) as disparate personal items used exclusively in utilitarian ‘grooming’. Conversely, calling miniature items ‘amulets’, while drawing attention to their potential magical properties in mortuary environments, is predicated on their presumed lack of practical utility. The term ‘amulets’ can obscure rather than reveal, by masking the connections between ‘functioning’ and ‘miniature’ grooming implements’ and overshadowing their shared potential relationships with ritualised acts of trimming and dressing head hair in the early Anglo-Saxon mortuary process. Even in discussions of richly furnished early medieval burials in which grooming implements are included and might have been used during multiple and successive stages of theatrical death rituals leading up to their deposition with the dead, combs and toilet items are regularly perceived as subsidiary and supplementary to other artefact-groups including weapons, jewellery and feasting gear (e.g. Williams 2001; 2006; 2011a).

Figure 1: Urn A1419 from Sancton, East Yorkshire, containing the bones of an older subadult and animal bone, plus a miniature iron razor, iron possible toilet item and miniature pair of copper-alloy tweezers, plus an unburnt single-sided composite comb (redrawn by the author after Timby 1993, 342)

Figure 2: Urn A410 from Sancton, East Yorkshire, containing the bones of a mature adult, possible male, and fragments of animal bone. Artefacts included a pair of copper-alloy tweezers, a pair of unfinished copper-alloy shears, some fused glass and fragments of burnt copper alloy (redrawn by the author after Timby 1993, 319).

Combs, tweezers, shears, razors, and sometimes ear scoops too, can be profitably interpreted as key elements of ‘technologies of remembrance’: chains of operations enacted during the mortuary process and serving in the selective remembering and forgetting the dead (see Williams 2015 for an extended discussion). For 5th/early 6th-century cremation practices, these items held a special importance. Fragments of combs and toilet items and sets (some full-sized, some small and some demonstrably miniatures) were placed unburnt in a significant minority of cinerary urns after survivors had collected the ashes from the funeral pyre (Williams 2003; 2007). For example, the large cremation cemetery at Sancton, East Yorkshire, contains many examples of decorated cinerary urns accompanied not only by burnt dress accessories but also unburnt toilet implements and combs. Some items were miniatures and others were full-sized but incomplete (Timby 1993; Figures 1 and 2). A further example from a recently published excavation is the ‘Minerva’ mixed-rite (bi-ritual) cemetery of Alwalton, Cambridgeshire, where the majority of cinerary urns contained an unburnt fragment of an antler comb (Gibson 2007; see also Williams 2011b; 2015; Figures 3 and 4). Practices varied between cemeteries and across England in terms of the frequency and character of grooming implements’ deposition with the cremated dead. Yet a distinctive use of miniature antler combs and miniature iron toilet implements/tool-kits has been identified at some southern English sites, notably Worthy Park, Kingsworthy, Hampshire and Saxton Road, Abingdon, Oxfordshire (Hawkes et al. 2003, 124–5, 130; Williams 2011b; 2015; Figure 5).

Figure 3: Burial 1254 from the Minerva cemetery, Alwalton, Cambridgeshire. A large globular jar with stamped decoration containing the cremated remains of a juvenile individual together with an antler comb and a fragment of curved bone tube (redrawn by the author after Gibson 2007, 319)

Figure 4: Burial 1285 from the Minerva cemetery, Alwalton, Cambridgeshire. An adult of indeterminate sex was interred with a clip, slag, an antler comb fragment and iron tweezers (redrawn by the author after Gibson 2007, 321)

Figure 5: Cinerary urn C23 with bossed decoration and artefacts from Worthy Park, Kingsworthy, Hampshire. Artefacts included an antler comb, miniature iron tools, and a copper-alloy lace tag (redrawn by the author after Hawkes et al. 2003, 130)

It seems that, for some early Anglo-Saxon funerals, the fiery transformation of the cadaver was accompanied by rituals linked to the cutting and dressing of hair. Following cremation, the dry, fragmented, distorted and shrunken human bone was retrieved, collected into urns, and supplemented with grooming implements. This might be interpreted as a mnemonic strategy for articulating the building of a new corporeal surface and personhood for the ashes and within the grave (Nugent and Williams 2012; Williams 2003; 2007; 2014; 2015).

While there seems to be a special relationship between cremation and grooming implements, 5th–6th-century inhumation graves also on occasion include combs and toilet items (see Williams 2007). Such practices need consideration as deliberate acts of deposition rather than incidental elements of furnished costume. For example, sixth-century grave 75 from Watchfield (Oxfordshire) contained the supine skeleton of an adult aged 35–40 years buried with a pair of gilded cast copper-alloy saucer brooches, and a loop-headed iron pin, all situated on the clavicles (Figure 6). In addition, a single glass bead and single amber bead were placed on the right ribcage; their position suggests they had been placed on the cadaver rather than worn suspended as a festoon from the brooches. Also upon the chest were copper-alloy tweezers, perhaps originally suspended on an iron loop (Scull 1992, 188–90).

Figure 6: Grave 75, south-north orientated 6th-century grave containing the supine skeleton of a middle-aged adult and containing a pair of saucer brooches, copper-alloy tweezers, and beads of amber and glass (redrawn by the author after Scull 1992, 188)

Newly published cemeteries are revealing fresh dimensions to the connection between grooming and death into the late 6th and 7th centuries AD: a time of kingdom formation and Christian conversion. At the recently published mixed-rite Tranmer House cemetery, Suffolk, grave 8 shows the inclusion of an antler comb as part of a high-status mid–late sixth-century cremation burial within a pair of touching vessels – a pot and a bronze hanging bowl. It is possible that this indicates a specific connection between combs, bowls and grooming practices in commemorating the cremated dead (Newman 2005, 486; Penn 2011, 79; Fern 2015, 44–6).

We find evidence that wealthy and ‘princely’ seventh-century graves, despite their variability, share the theme of hair-related rituals involving intimate acts of placing grooming implements with the dead in the final stages of funerals. While discussions have focused on the allusions to feasting and martial identity in these graves, I would argue that mnemonic acts linking to grooming served not only to negotiate the transformation of the dead, but also to install the dead as dressed and hirsute corporeal presences in the early medieval landscape beneath prominent burial mounds. For example, this theme links together both cremation and inhumation graves at the famous Sutton Hoo burial ground, Suffolk (Carver 2005, 67–9, 75, 87–96, 101-5; Evans 2005, 202–8, 210). The richly furnished Mound 17 weapon burial had a comb added in the latter stages of the burial rite (Carver 2005, 132). There were an exceptional three combs centrally positioned amidst the fabulous Mound 1 assemblage at Sutton Hoo (Bruce-Mitford 1975, 444, 474; Evans and Galloway 1983, 813–30; Carver 2005, 179–99). On the pyre and/or in the grave, these items defined the deceased’s sartorial elegance and transformation from head to toe. More than of a personal significance, grooming and washing the body prompted and directed social remembrance.

A further male-gendered example is the rich mid-seventh-century weapon burial from a primary burial mound excavated at Ford, Laverstock, Wiltshire. Here the adult male was interred with a belt buckle, ‘sugar-loaf’ bossed shield (with three studs surviving of the shield board), two spears (the spearheads survived) and a seax with silver fittings in its sheath. This rich collection of weapons and dress accessory have dominated interpretations of the grave as one of a class of rich barrow-burials found across the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. However, at the very centre of the grave, a strikingly well-preserved 19cm-long double-sided comb was placed on top of a bronze hanging bowl found to contain traces of vegetable material, identified as possible onion bulbs and crab apples. It remains unclear whether the bulbs and apples constitute food or some other concoction, but it might be suggested that, together, the bowl and comb were perhaps associated with sustaining and grooming for the deceased’s body; therefore, they were dimensions of social practice central not only to the deceased’s personal identity but to wider bodily techniques that defined his membership of a wider social network and their masculine elite personhood (Musty 1969; Figure 7).

Figure 7: The 7th-century weapon-burial from within a ring-ditch from Ford, Laverstock, Wiltshire. As well as a buckle, seax, two spears and shield, a hanging bowl and bone comb were positioned by the knees (redrawn by the author after Musty 1969, 100, 101 and plate XXVIII).

Mid-/late seventh-century wealthy female-gendered inhumation graves show this theme enduring through the Anglo-Saxon elite’s Christian conversion. For example, five wealthy female-gendered inhumation graves from a seventh-century cemetery at Harford Farm, Norfolk, indicate an enduring association between death and grooming. Here, silver miniature toilet sets communicated and constituted the aristocratic (arguably Christian) identities of their bearers (Penn 2000; Williams 2006, 65–77; 2010; Figure 8). This evidence provides demonstrably secular predecessors and equivalent depositional practices involving grooming implements to the well-recognised Christian and liturgical use of combs from the seventh century, strikingly revealed in the ecclesiastical elite mortuary context by the double-sided ivory comb interred in the tomb of St Cuthbert (most recently discussed in Ashby 2014).

Figure 8: Grave 11: a wealthy female-gendered late 7th-century inhumation grave from the ‘final-phase’ cemetery of Harford Farm, Norfolk (redrawn by the author after Penn 2000)

There remains much more research to be done to investigate grooming practices and metaphors in early Anglo-Saxon England and situate them in a broader context of late Antique/early medieval Britain, north-west Europe and Scandinavia. For the graves briefly explored here, it is argued that grooming implements might be seen as mnemonic generators rather than simply as ethnic markers or status symbols. Through their use and interment with ashes and unburnt bodies, grooming implements created and re-created specific portrayals of personhood in death. Subsequently, during a protracted period of social, political, economic and religious transformation associated with kingdom formation and Christian conversion, grooming became a central dimension of constituting and commemorating elite personhood. Being tressed for death seems to be a varied but unquestionable strand of continuity from pre-Christian to early Christian mortuary practice (Williams 2006; 2010; see also Ashby 2014).


Ashby S. 2014 ‘Technologies of appearance: hair behaviour in early medieval Europe’, Archaeological Journal 171. 151–184.

Bruce-Mitford, R. and Evans, A.C. 1975 The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial, Volume I: Excavations, Background, the Ship, Dating and Inventory. London: The British Museum.

Brundle, L. 2013 ‘the body on display: exploring the role and use of figurines in early Anglo-Saxon England’, Journal of Social Archaeology 13(2). 197–219.

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Viking Age Hair

By Dr. Elisabeth Arwill-Nordbladh
Professor of Historical Studies
University of Gothenburg

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Arwill-Nordbladh, E. (2016) Viking Age Hair, Internet Archaeology 42.


In a passage of Skáldskaparmál, a section of the Icelandic 13th-century Edda, Snorri Sturluson discusses different metaphors, or kennings, for gold. Concerning one of them, he asks, ‘Why is gold called Siv’s hair?’ Then follows the narrative of how Loki, the trickster of the Old Norse pantheon, ‘for love of mischief’ had cut off the long golden hair of Siv, wife of the god of thunder, Thor (Clunies Ross 1994, 59). This atrocity made Thor furious. To make amends, Loki had to provide the gods with the most precious gifts, crafted and enchanted by dwarfs, who were skilled in both smith-work and magic. Siv was given a new head of hair of pure gold, which would grow on her head like natural hair (Lindow 2001, 266). Thor, who was entrusted with Siv’s hair to give to her, was also given the magic hammer, Mjölnir. Odin received the magic spear Gungnir and a ring of gold that every ninth night would create eight new golden rings. Finally, Frej was given the ship Skidbladnir, and a fast running boar with golden bristles.

This episode tells us that hair was a significant and highly esteemed part of the body. Inflicting damage on Siv’s hair was both a crime and an offence. Based on the frequently encountered cultural idea that access to someone’s hair equates with access to the body as a whole, Margaret Clunies Ross (1994, 59-61) suggests that with this disgrace – humiliating Thor by severing this part of his wife’s body – Loki also insinuated that Siv was a goddess of easy virtue. Such an insult was an issue for the Aesir community as a kin group. That the atonement resulted in the three main gods receiving their most emblematic attributes underlines the seriousness of the deed. Moreover, it demonstrates that hair was of significant social importance, both as a mediator of values and norms, and as a material item, open for physical arrangement and rearrangement.

Hair has very specific physical characteristics. It is constantly growing but is also disposed to to fall out and cause baldness. It is painless to cut but causes pain if torn. It combines fragility with a strong texture, and it is capable of being formed in various hairstyles. If physical variations like colour, texture, curliness or straightness, and the need for care are added, hair’s materiality is connected with culturally required grooming techniques and grooming equipment (Ashby 2014). Moreover, a dead body’s hair decays differently from flesh and bone. Tufts of hair may sometimes be preserved and tended for centuries as relics or memorabilia. Thus, the importance of hair and hair grooming is remarkable, and in many societies, hair has been considered a powerful social, symbolic, and communicative resource (Hallpike 1969). Consequently, hair articulation is not neutral but laden with ‘historical, cultural, political, and gendered meanings’ (Bordo 2008, 409).

In Viking-Age Scandinavia, hair also seems to have played an important role in social dynamics. Hedeager (2015, 134) reminds us that Snorri Sturluson in Skáldskaparmál considers women’s and men’s proper physical appearance as crucial for creating the essence of a gendered social person – including hair and its styling. Hair as a social matter is demonstrated by some passages in the Old Norse poem Rigsthula, where attention is paid to the colour of the hair, designating old age and different social classes. Choices related to the physical phenomena of hair – hair preparation, grooming and its equipment, and a desired hairstyle that influenced one’s appearance – were all part of a process that Ashby (2014, 153-54) designates as hair behaviour.

Textual Evidence Regarding Hair Behaviour

The narrative of Siv’s golden hair belongs to a literary corpus that was written down some two to three hundred years after the last part of the Viking Age, an era that lasted from approximately 790-1100 AD. Using these written records requires careful source criticism; however, most scholars agree that the Icelandic Sagas can be used in many ways to discuss the ‘mentality, ideas, social structure, farm life, and everyday customs’ of Old Norse society (Lönnroth 2008, 309). In the Sagas, the character of both women’s and men’s head hair is often mentioned. For men, beards and sometimes eyebrows are also facial attributes of significance (Audur Magnusdóttir, personal communication). For example, in Njal’s Saga, some men were ridiculed for being beardless, thus implying an ‘unmanly’ and weak behaviour. For women, beautiful hair seems to have been a highly valued attribute (Magnusdóttir 2016, 120).

Continental texts from the centuries that precede the Viking Age also highlight the symbolic meaning of hair. Such examples are the importance of long hair in the Merovingian and Lombard cultures (Wallace-Hadrill 1962; Goosmann 2012; Axboe and Källström 2013), or the cutting of hair or head shaving in the creation of the religious attribute of tonsure in Early Medieval Europe, as recorded by Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard in the first chapter, Capitulum Primum, of his Vita Karoli Magni from about 820 AD. It is not unlikely that continental ideas regarding the significance of hair articulation influenced people in Scandinavia, as much of the contemporary high-status Scandinavian archaeological material indicates connections with Merovingian and Carolingian spheres. Nevertheless, a specific Scandinavian hairstyle might have been a way of declaring an individual’s ethnic and social position. This connection may be indicated by a passage in the early Christian Norwegian Kristenrett, from the law of Borgarthing, which states that if a drowned seafarer with a Norse hairstyle had been washed ashore, he should be buried in a Christian graveyard (Keyser and Munch 1848, 44, Ældre Borgartingslov. Vikens Kristenret, 1914, 24).

Pictorial Evidence of Hair Behaviour

Figure 1: Viking Age picture stone from Tjängvide, Gotland, Sweden. Photographer: Christer Åhlin/The Swedish History Museum.

The Viking Age iconographic material provides several sources for studying human figures and appearance, including hair articulation. Within this category, the so-called picture stones offer important evidence. These raised stones, which appear on the Baltic island of Gotland and create significant places in the landscape, show a number of narrative scenes, with people sailing, horse riding, travelling in carts, fighting, or taking part in other activities (Figure 1; Nylén and Lamm 1988; Gotländskt Arkiv 2012). Both women and men appear in the scenes. In her investigation of gender and body language as expressed on the Viking Age picture stones, Eva-Marie Göransson has, among other things, analysed female and male hair styles (1999, 40-42). For women, the most common coiffure was a long ponytail, coiled into a knot close to the head, sometimes called the ‘Irish ribbon knot’ (Hedeager 2015, 134). Occasionally the ponytail was plain. Next in popularity was the topknot. These hairstyles were a prominent part of high-status female appearance, showing an S-curved body line with a long skirt and a solemn and controlled posture. Sometimes the body language included the inviting gesture of an outreached drinking horn. It is of course possible that this image of a ‘lady of magnificence’, to use Göransson’s (1999) term (praktfru in Swedish), represented a fictive notion of an ideal figure, but if a real social category was represented, the treatment of these women’s hair must have been part of a long-term project, as the coiled ponytail required very long hair. Growing and keeping such long hair needed attention and care for many years. This implies long term strategies regarding hair as a social and symbolic resource. (Göransson 1999, 41).

Among the men, the majority of the pictures showed them with short hair. However, about one-third of her sample wore their hair in a plait. An even more pronounced trait was the beard. Göransson could also distinguish some that she labelled androgynous, with both beards and female dress, and even one bearded figure with a ponytail.

The women and men on the picture stones showed narratives or activities that were connected to the rules and norms of body language including gestures, postures, costumes, and coiffures. Even if the figures themselves were miniaturised, their abundance and placement on these large stones demonstrated the ideals of dress and hair behaviour on a grand scale in the landscape. A similar mode of appearance can be seen on some rare fragments of textile, such as the tapestry fragments from Överhogdal in Sweden and Rolvsøy and Oseberg in Norway. Processions of walking people and horses with wagons seem to connect the textiles and the picture stones to the same norms in terms of appearance. Where discernible, the most pronounced female hairstyle is the coiled ponytail. This style is also shown on some of the horses’ tails (Christensen et al. 1992, 233-34), possibly attributing feminine features to the horses. With regards to Oseberg and Rolvsøy, the textiles with their various meanings, including concepts of bodily appearance, were found as parts of the furnished burial chamber, connecting these ideas of new material realities with the afterlife (Arwill-Nordbladh 1998, 242-50; Vedeler 2014). However, it is most likely that such tapestries were also used as decorations in houses, shown for selected groups of people in halls, or hung in other rooms for festivities. In this way, acceptable modes of decorum for a certain social segment were conveyed (Arwill-Nordbladh 1998, 159-60).

Figure 2: Drawing of a Migration Age gold foil or Guldgubbe, Helgö, Uppland, Sweden. Inv. nr 25075. Id. 110379. Photographer: Staff/The Swedish History Museum.

Another category of imagery featuring human beings appears on the small, stamped gold foils often called guldgubbar. On specific sites, these can be found in abundance and many thousands have been found in total. The majority have been dated to the 6th-8th centuries, but they still appear in the Viking Age. These guldgubbar have been discovered inside large buildings or great halls that would have belonged to magnates, but they are also found in the open landscape (for an overview, see Watt 1999). In most cases, men are depicted. Their hairstyles vary from short to shoulder-length, sometimes even curled. Occasionally, however, the hair is hidden by a cap or other headgear. The women’s hairstyle is less varied: the coiled-knot ponytail dominates (Figure 2). For the men, a moustache also features (see, for example, Ashby 2014, 174; Hedeager 2014, 285-86). The images on the guldgubbar and the picture stones suggest that women’s hair was styled in a similar way over a period of about 500 years. In contrast, the hair articulation of men was more varied. This differing male hairstyle is underlined by another type of evidence, the gold bracteates. They were produced from the middle of the 5th century AD and into the early 6th century, thus contemporary with the earliest guldgubbar. Many of them depict men, and their head profiles may show short hair, hair styled as a ridge, or long hair ending with a curl at the neck. In addition, an en face image showing the long hair framing both sides of the face in a pigtail-like style also occurs (Figure 3; Axboe and Källström 2013).

Figure 3: Migration Age gold bracteate from Höganäs, Scania, Sweden, inv. nr 7050:2. Photographer: Ulf Bruxe/The Swedish History Museum

Figure 4: Drawing of Migration Age sword mounting from Snartemo, Norway. From Magnus 2003, Figure 6, p. 42. Image credit: Adaptation, with kind permission from Bente Magnus, of picture from Magnus 2003, fig 6, p 42. Picture processing by Richard Potter, Department of Historical Studies, University of Gothenburg.

A significant piece of evidence of hair articulation, which highlights the presence of men’s long hair, appears on a small piece of gold mounting from the sword of the Norwegian Migration-period grave in Snartemo (Figure 4; Magnus 2003). In this case, the long hair of two men, depicted kneeling back to back, is coiled and linked together, fastening the men to each other as if their two bodies shared the same long hair. This is one of many instances where the hairstyle is integrated into the ornamental curves of metal objects. As late Iron Age Scandinavian art is distinguished by a horror vacui animal style curvature, the hair articulation often blends with other body parts of men or animals like a picture puzzle (Hedeager 2004; Kristoffersen 2010). Thus, there are many examples of faces and masks with hairstyles in the Scandinavian ornamental style in the late Iron Age, including the Viking Age (Helmbrecht 2011). However, these varied coiffures may not necessarily have been used on a daily basis, as many scholars believe that the imagery expresses mythical or ancestral beliefs (for example, Magnus 2003; Kristoffersen 2010; Hedeager 2011). Nevertheless, even if the hairstyles displayed on these items may have been imaginary, they bear witness to the fact that such appearances were part of the accepted notions of hair articulation.


Figure 5a (left): Merovingian (Vendel) bronze mount from a cremation grave, Solberga, Östergötland. Photographer: Staff/The Swedish History Museum.  Figure 5b: The same mounting as Figure 5a (right). Picture processing by Richard Potter, Department of Historical Studies, University of Gothenburg.

The images discussed above were designed to be meaningful patterns in the decoration of objects such as brooches, mountings, and the like. Even if they were small and their intricate compositions were most likely difficult to discern, they must have been objects of power for their users. Being displayed in performative events, the images confirmed notions or norms regarding corporeal behaviour, including hair articulation. These small images reinforce the impression given from the picture stones that the masculine hair articulation was more varied than the feminine during the late Iron Age. A bronze mount dated to the 7th or 8th century from a cremation grave in Solberga, Östergötland, Sweden (Figure 5a–5b) can serve as a chronological link in this approximately 20 generations-long chain. In this image, a man is sitting in a boat fishing and wearing headgear that reaches down to his shoulders and might also be interpreted as hair. Under the boat a woman is swimming, reaching for the hook – for us an unknown, maybe mythical, person who is connected to the sea. The woman’s hair has been gathered into a ponytail and then coiled into an ‘Irish knot’, thus signifying affinity with the earlier images showing this coiffure and serving as a link to later ones.

Viking Age Figurines

A distinctive feature of Viking Age material culture was the presence of miniatures, serving as amulets, decorations on clothing, or used for other purposes (Gräslund 2008; Jensen 2010). Some of these small-scale objects show human figures. Burial and settlement sites such as Birka, Uppåkra, Lejre, and Tissø are examples of high-status contexts in which such finds appear. The use of precious materials such as bronze or other copper alloys, or silver that was sometimes gilded or foiled with gold, underscores that this was a high ranked milieu. The hairstyles and headgear depicted on these miniatures emphasises the interpretation that masculine hair articulation was more varied and included different headgear, while feminine hairstyles were restricted to the ponytail and topknot. However, new finds constantly widen the social roles that can be associated with this feminine hairstyle. Not only the ‘lady of magnificence’ or other high-status women, or women and other creatures with mythical connotations, were associated with the coiled ponytail. Recently, a little silver figurine of a woman (Figures 6 and 7) equipped with a shield and a sword, ‘The Valkyrie from Hårby’, demonstrated that women were allowed to combine the traditional long dress and hair custom with martial equipment (see for example Price 2015, 5-7). Very occasionally, as shown on the little figurine called ‘Odin from Lejre’, gender neutral headgear could appear, which together with the other attributes featured on this miniature, could convey a gender ambiguous character (Back Danielsson 2010; Arwill-Nordbladh 2013), an ambiguity that is discernible elsewhere (Back Danielsson 2014).


The so-called Valkyrie from Hårby. Viking Age Object C 39227.
Figure 6 (left): Front view Photographer: Arnold Mikelsen. National Museum of Denmark / Figure 7(right); Back view Photographer: Arnold Mikelsen. National Museum of Denmark

There is, however, a small group of objects that show a quite different female hair articulation. In Denmark, a gilded silver figure from Tissø, a bronze figure from Stavsanger and most recently, a find of a copper-alloy figure from Stålmosegård all show a female figure wearing a long dress and probably jewellery, with her hair combed in two pretzel or pigtail-like arrangements. The body language is peculiar, as it seems that she is tearing at her hair. This coiffure, sometimes without the tearing gesture, appears on a few more items from other sites (Helmbrecht 2011, 156 abb. 56; Arwill-Nordbladh 2012, 46-47; Kastholm 2015, compare the picture stone from Smiss), and it occasionally merges into the contemporary animal art style. Kastholm (2015) pays attention to the Stålmosegård figurine’s unusual facial expression in combination with the hair tearing, and suggests that the little object depicts the ecstatic state of a shamanistic performance. For the Tissø figure, it has been suggested that its odd, ocular expression may signify a prophetic seeress (Arwill-Nordbladh 2012). However faint the evidence may be, these images may indicate that hair being gathered together and coiled to form a firm knot articulated a more restrained and self-controlled code of conduct than hair that was arranged to turn outwards from the head, sometimes even torn (compare Leach 1958, 154).

Evidence of Viking Age Grooming Behaviour

Some of the most common objects found in Iron Age burials and some settlement sites are combs and traces of comb production. In Scandinavia, combs are present in many prehistoric contexts, but they appear more frequently from the early Iron Age and all through the Iron Age era. Most of them are made from bone or antler (for example Ambrosiani 1981). Their form and decoration have been used to establish typological and chronological sequences. The archaeological record proves that both men and women possessed them, and many scholars believe that combs were personal belongings. Both women and men could carry a comb in their belts; this was sometimes placed in a cover of bone and sometimes in a case or purse, usually of leather (Figure 8). It is likely that their regular use and their close connection to an individual’s potent and significant body part (i.e. the hair), could lend a particular kind of affinity to combs. This connection could explain why combs are so frequent in graves. It is possible that the prevalent belief indicated that it would be unwise for anyone else to use a dead person’s combs.

Figure 8: Comb and comb-case from Vendel grave IX, dated to the middle of the 10th century. After Stolpe and Arne 1912, pl. XXVI, 10. Image credit: O. Sörling

The shape and ornamentation of some combs show a remarkable resemblance to Viking Age halls, and Terje Gansum (2003) has suggested that these combs were loaded with symbolic significance as the hall was a centre for activities that constituted the foundation of Iron Age social order in terms of rank.

For men, in addition to grooming their hair, a well-groomed beard might also have been important, signifying rank and status. It is seemingly noteworthy that the nicknames of two of the most renowned Viking leaders, Svein Forkbeard and Harald the Fairhair, referred to their hair. It is possible that beard grooming procedures or parts thereof were carried out by the bearded person himself, but it is also plausible that a second person could assist with washing, shaving, cutting, combing, and braiding. In comparison with combs, late Iron Age finds of razors are not so abundant; however, a knife could serve the same purpose.

Figure 9: Viking Age ear spoon of silver, Birka grave 507. Birka, Adelsö sn. Uppland, Inv. nr 34000, id. 456867. Photographer: Gabriel Hildebrand/The Swedish History Museum

Viking Age grooming could include additional practices other than just tending head-hair and beard. Some women’s graves contain a small implement, which has often been interpreted as an ear spoon, used as an ear cleaner. The woman in Birka grave 507 was equipped with such a tool (Figure 9). Made of silver, and partially gilded, one side of its oval handle was decorated to show a lady with her hair styled in the traditional coiled ponytail, holding a horn in her outstretched hand. Both the context of the grave and the decoration of the ear spoon, implies that this kind of body care is linked to the female high-status domain (Gräslund 1989).

Physical Remains of Iron Age Hair

In Iron Age Scandinavia there exist a few grave-finds with tufts of human hair that have been detached from the body – either from the dead subject or from a living participant in the funerary event (see Lund and Arwill-Nordbladh 2016). In each of these burials the hair had been treated as a special object and kept separate from the body. In an inhumation grave from Kvinesdal, Norway, dated to the 5th century AD, the corpse was placed in a stone cist together with some grave goods (Solberg 1993; Gansum 2003, 202). On a slab at the lower end of the cist a folded tuft of hair was placed. Over time the corpse decayed and today only the hair remains. Another specimen of hair, from the East Mound in Uppsala, now probably lost, is known from written reports (Lindqvist 1936, 138). Here a tuft of hair was placed at the bottom of the mound, clearly separated from the cremated bones of two individuals. A third example comes from the cremation burial of Skopintull on the island of Adelsö in Lake Mälaren (Figure 10; Rydh 1936, 104-28). Here a long piece of cut hair was placed at the bottom of a bronze bucket, which was subsequently filled with a selection of cremated bones of two human beings, animals and some small objects.

Figure 10: Hair from the cremation grave Skopintull, Adelsö, Uppland, Sweden, 10th century. Photographer: Staff/The Swedish History Museum.

These three cases indicate that the hair, after being separated from the body was treated as a very special physical phenomenon. Anthropological observations offer many examples of ritual behaviour, in particular during processes of rites des passages, where hair and hair treatment constituted meaningful parts. If separated from the body, the cut off hair, as a transitional object parted from its former identity, would often be understood as a powerful and potent item, in the words of Edmund Leach (1958) characterised as ‘a magic object’.


The archaeological record shows that people in late Iron Age Scandinavia lived in a vibrant era. Active and forceful identity groups like kin and families, local and regional groups of leaders, communities of gender, ranks, and practitioners of religious rites, were some of the many interacting factions. Significant in such processes were practices related to the body, including hair and its treatment. Such phenomena dominate the archaeological record, and as a result this brief overview of hair behaviour may be biased towards high-status groups and their social situations, connected to rituals and ceremonies. In this context, however, one can conclude that both women’s and men’s hair articulation was a significant social and cultural feature. Throughout the centuries, men were shown carrying out more varied activities than women, thus demonstrating a wider range of corporeal differentiations, including head hair and beard styling. We can thus conclude that men had access to a more varied palette regarding hair behaviour. Regarding female hair articulations, one hairstyle — the coiled and knot ponytail — maintained its importance for many centuries, indicating that there existed norms, techniques and practices to retain this gendered memory for generations. For both women and men, hair and its articulations seems to have been an important feature, expressing social norms and roles, but also exceptional status. With its specific material character, hair was an indispensable and creative part in social dynamics.


My warm thanks to Auður Magnusdóttir for sharing her knowledge of the Edda texts, and to Henrik Alexandersson for useful information of the Borgarting Law. I also wish to thank Bente Magnus, who has kindly given access to the illustration in Figure 4, to Richard Potter for picture processing and to Sara Ellis Nilsson for revising the English in earlier drafts.


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Grooming the Face in the Early Middle Ages

By Dr. Steven P. Ashby
Senior Lecturer in Archaeology
University of York

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Ashby, S.P. (2016) Grooming the Face in the Early Middle Ages, Internet Archaeology 42.

The Beard Today

In the contemporary world, the significance and associations of facial hair are plain to see, but nonetheless complex for that. Though the years after c.2010 have seen an unexpected return of the beard to western fashion, by early in 2015 something of a backlash against such ‘hipsters’ had begun. In the context of radical Islam too, Orientalist perceptions of beards should not be overlooked (Awan and Zempi 2015; Culcasi and Gokmen 2011); facial hair is an easy touchstone for the ‘Othering’ of ethnic groups (see Pohl 1998; Said 1978).

Moreover, traditional attitudes regarding whether men in positions of power should sport beards have continued to hold traction in the west; the USA has not had a president with facial hair since W.H. Taft (1857–1930), while the last US Head of State to sport a full beard was Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901). In the UK, the response to the reporter Jeremy Paxman growing one was forthright (Marsden 2013). So deep-seated is the western world’s association between trustworthiness, professionalism, and a clean-shaven chin that it is easy to think that this is natural, a human universal. But one need only look back to the 19th century to see that it has not always been so, even in Europe and North America, where the advent of the safety razor provides an excellent case study in the inextricability of technological and social change (Herzig 2015, 119-27).

The Beard in the Past

With this in mind, the history of the beard and its social and political associations seems a fruitful field of study. Though certainly not overrun with scholarship, I am not alone in this pursuit (see Beauman 2015); indeed, in 2011 Australia’s National Portrait Gallery ran a ‘Mo Show‘, while late 2015 saw an interdisciplinary conference entitled ‘Framing the Face’ (Withey and Evans 2015). Nonetheless, none of these studies concern themselves with my topic here: beards in the early medieval, proto-historic period.

There is of course no reason to doubt that the cultivation and styling of facial hair has considerable antiquity (for accessible reviews see Hawksley 2014; Peterkin 2001). Notwithstanding the existence of razors and similar bladed tools in prehistory, except in rare cases such as a few Iron-Age bog bodies (e.g. Roum Man, Kreepen-Brammer Man; Neu Versen Man; see Gill-Robinson 2005), beards are all but impossible to perceive in the archaeological record. Past societies represented today by art, complex technology, writing, and bodily preservation (natural or artificial mummification) foster a greater level of confidence to explore the social contexts of hair behaviour. Egypt, in particular, has a plethora of sources with which to work. Though it seems that body hair was commonly removed, the beard was seen as set apart from this, and came to represent status, to such an extent that postiches — strap-on beards — were commonly used by royalty in Old Kingdom Egypt. Art of the Near East (e.g. Iran, Assyria, shows a fashion for rather exaggerated, luxuriant beards), while the idea that in ancient Greece, beards stood for both virility and wisdom has become widely accepted.

In Rome, beards appear to have waned in popularity among people of standing between the late Republican period and the 2nd century AD, presumably in line with cultus, the indulgent attention to personal grooming so bemoaned by Roman commentators such as Seneca (see Toner 2015 for a discussion of how far this elite literary commentary reflected everyday practice). The fashion appears to have briefly reverted to the hirsute under the rule of Hadrian and his successors Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus. Though Hadrian’s decision was explained away in the Historia Augusta (HA Spart. Hadr. 26) as an attempt to conceal facial blemishes, this does little to explain the style’s widespread and persistent popularity, and it is probably better seen as part of a package of cultural reinventions introduced by the new emperor (Zanker 1995). The indirect but widespread influence of the powerful is thus visible even in everyday grooming practices, and is certainly related to the ways in which hair and its apparent associations with uncleanliness were used to separate the Roman from the ‘barbarian’ Other.

Beards in Early Middle History

Such ‘non-Romans’ provide an interesting case study; we might in particular consider the Lombards, whose very appellation is traditionally believed to derive from an origin myth in which the group’s women disguise themselves as men by tying their hair down to form ‘long beards’ (Borri 2014). In many ways the historicity of this story matters much less than its existence, while in ‘Romans growing beards’, Borri (2014) argues that the apparent rise to dominance of Lombardic culture in 7th-century Italy is best viewed not as popular displacement, but rather as a transformation of behaviour, and a transformation in which grooming practices are certainly implicated.

I have argued elsewhere for the significance of head hair to the Merovingian dynasty (Ashby 2014), and while the role played by facial hair in this context is less clear, it does come somewhat into focus in the reign of Charlemagne. In a strategy that was in some ways similar to that employed by Hadrian (see above), he styled himself with a long moustache, perhaps in imitation of images of Theoderic, but certainly as a statement of distinction from the ousted Merovingian dynasty (Dutton 2004).

In England, Alcuin’s rebuke of the Anglo-Saxon tendency to emulate Scandinavian hairstyles is well known, but he actually refers directly to facial hair: ‘trimming their hair and beard like the pagans’, in his mind, to the eventual ruin of England. ‘See how you have wanted to copy the pagan way of cutting hair and beards. Are not these the people whose terror threatens us, yet you want to copy their hair?’ Of course there is no way of knowing whether Alcuin — who was resident at the court of Charlemagne by this point — ever really saw a Scandinavian beard, or else an Anglo-Saxon attempting to mimic it. It is just as likely that he was using personal appearance as a trope, a sort of visual shorthand for ‘pagan ways’. This is potentially even more interesting: why would a scholar fix upon these particular symbols for paganism?

In Ireland, attitudes to hair and beards have been well researched by William Sayers (Sayers 1991), and it suffices to provide an example. A poem known as the Geisi Ulcai (Prohibitions of the beard) preserved in the 14th-century Book of Lecan, but thought to relate a first-millennial tradition (O’Looney 1870, 173, 190-93), outlines clear proscriptions on who can wear a beard, and how. The author claims to be ‘a man of great knowledge of what is lawful for every kind of beard’. He notes that:

There are warriors who are entitled to a beard Who are not cowardly — Noble chiefs by land and sea And battle champions.


Artificers, smiths, house-builders. Physicians who cure the infirm. Because of their fatigue they shave every month [The beard] on their faces.

The associations here between status, virility, and the right to grow a beard are both unambiguous and significant (see Sayers 1991 for a fuller discussion and general context). Further north, Viking-Age attitudes to facial hair are not easy to grasp with any certainty. The sagas, recorded several centuries after the end of the Viking Age, contain numerous references to facial hair, often with implications for social standing and status. The most famous example comes from the Saga of Burnt Njál (Cook 2001), in which the apparently noteworthy beardlessness of the eponymous hero is remarked upon immediately upon his introduction, while the term ‘dungbeardlings’ is repeatedly used for his sons (in an obviously derogatory manner; see Sayers 1994; Phelpstead 2013, 9-10).

In isolation, the above scattered references of variable historicity tell us little; together they at least provide sufficient circumstantial evidence for us to consider the likelihood that facial hair was a recognised and tended-to phenomenon in (early and later) medieval society. But we must turn to archaeology to begin to interpret these references.

Beards in Early-Medieval Archaeology

Throughout early medieval northern Europe, the prevalence of combs does much to suggest that personal appearance was an important social consideration (e.g. Ambrosiani 1981; Ashby 2011; 2014; Williams 2003). How exactly this was manifest in terms of the grooming of facial hair is unclear. There have been suggestions that miniature combs often found in ‘Germanic’ graves (see Williams this issue) may have been beard combs, but this is difficult to substantiate.

Figure 1: Figures illustrated on the Pictish symbol stone from the Brough of Birsay. Note attention paid to hair and beard style, and differences between the figure at the head of the line, and his followers. Image credit: Hayley Saul

More telling is the appearance of facial hair in art. In Germanic metalwork, for instance, human masks are a common element, and they are frequently and meaningfully adorned with ornate moustaches (e.g. Martin 2015); see also the Sutton Hoo helmet, in which the moustache and eyebrows famously combine with the nasal to form a bird in flight (Marzinzik 2007). In the more naturalistic sculptural art of Pictish Scotland, there are a number of significant representations of facial hair. The most notable adorns the stone from the Brough of Birsay — a possible Pictish power centre (though see Brundle 2005) — and illustrates a procession of soldiers. The figure at the head of the cortège is often interpreted as the leader; though all the figures are armed and finely dressed, the details of his costume, hair, and face are distinctive. Most notably, he sports a distinctive curled or spiked hairstyle, and a long, pointed beard (Figure 1).


Figure 2 (a & b): Wooden figureheads from the ship burial at Oseberg, Norway. Image credit: University of Oslo,

Further artistic evidence shows that at least some ‘vikings’ wore beards. With its neatly cropped facial hair, the rather naturalistic antler sculpture from Sigtuna is well known, as are the carved heads from the Oseberg ship burial (Figure 2). More abstract examples include the mask in the interlace design on the reverse of the Mammen axe, and, most impressively of all, the exaggerated beards that adorn a distinctive range of figurines known from across Scandinavia, and as far afield as Chernigov, Ukraine (see Perkins 2001, 53-81), the most famous example of which comes from Rällinge, Södermanland (Figure 3). These figurines may well have had an amuletic character, invoking some particular significance or power in the beard, and should clearly not be seen as direct representations of popular styles of grooming. Indeed, it is impossible to say quite how widespread the practice of beard growth was, but the figurines at least demonstrate that the reference was a widely understood one, and there is no reason to consider beards rare, particularly in light of the above-mentioned documentary references.

Figure 3: ‘Freyr’ figurine found at Rällinge, Södermanland. Image credit: Swedish History Museum, photographed by the Ministry of Social Affairs, 3 August 1995. (RDF)


Recent zoological research suggests that among primates (Grueter et al. 2015), male secondary sexual traits, including hair capes (areas of conspicuously long hair that may cover the head, shoulders and backs of certain primates) and beards, tend to be most well developed and visible in species that live in large, hierarchically ordered groups. The authors suggest that this may relate to the need to clearly display identity, status, dominance, or sexual desirability: a task that is rendered more difficult in large, anonymous societies characterised by significant conflict. While of course I am not advocating for either the direct application of analogy from primatological research, or for the interpretation of human behaviour in biologically determinist terms, it is worth considering if there might be a deep-rooted relationship between social complexity, the need to engage with foreigners and aliens, and personal display. Such an assertion would be uncontroversial were we talking about jewellery or personal dress; I simply argue that the same arguments apply to personal appearance, including grooming. Facial hair — perhaps even more than head hair (Ashby 2014) — is both visually conspicuous and easily maintained and manipulated. This makes it an ideal medium for the communication of shorthand statements about identity and social status. The use of beards and moustaches in the maintenance of distinction between individuals and identity groups is easily identified in early-medieval documentary and artistic evidence. It is time we took it seriously.


Ambrosiani, K. 1981 Viking Age Combs, Comb Making and Comb Makers in the Light of Finds from Birka and Ribe. Stockholm Studies in Archaeology 2, Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell.

Ashby, S.P. 2011 ‘An atlas of medieval combs from northern Europe’, Internet Archaeology 30.

Ashby, S.P. 2014 ‘Technologies of appearance: hair behaviour in Early-Medieval Britain and Europe’, Archaeological Journal 171. 153–186.

Awan, I. and Zempi, I. 2015 ‘We fear for our lives. Offline and online experiences of Anti-Muslim hostility’, Birmingham City University and Nottingham Trent University. [Last accessed: 26 Nov. 2015]

Beauman, N. 2015 ‘Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair by Christopher Oldstone-Moore: review’, Guardian, 23 Oct. 2015 [Last accessed: 26 Nov. 2015]

Borri, F. 2014 ‘Romans growing beards: identity and historiography in seventh-century Italy’, Viator 45, Turnhout: Brepols. 39–71.

Brundle, A. 2005 ‘The unimportance of early Birsay’ in O. Owen (ed.) The World of Orkneyinga Saga: the Broad-Cloth Viking Trip, Kirkwall: Orkney Museums and Heritage. 88–110.

Cook, R. 2001 Njál’s Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Culcasi, K. and Gokmen, M. 2011 ‘The face of danger. Beards in the U.S. media’s representations of Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Easterners’, Aether: Journal of Media Geography 8. 82–96.

Dutton, P.E. 2004 ‘Charlemagne’s mustache’ in P.E. Dutton (ed.) Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 3–42.

Gill-Robinson, H.C. 2005 The Iron Age Bog Bodies of the Archaeologisches Landesmuseum, Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, Germany, Schleswig: Schloss Gottorf.

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Hawksley, L. 2014 Moustaches, Whiskers and Beards, London: National Portrait Gallery.

Herzig, R.M. 2015 Plucked: A History of Hair Removal (Biopolitics), NYU Press.

Marsden, S. 2013 ‘Bearded Paxman hits out at BBC bias against facial hair’, Telegraph 13 Aug. 2013. [Last accessed: 26 Nov. 2015]

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Perkins, R. 2001 Thor the Wind-raiser and the Eyrarland Image, Viking Society for Northern Research Text Series Vol. 15, Viking Society: University College London.

Peterkin, A. 2001 One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair, Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press. Phelpstead, C. 2013 ‘Hair today, gone tomorrow: hair loss, the tonsure, and masculinity in Medieval Iceland’, Scandinavian Studies: Publication of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study 85, University of Illinois Press. 1–19.

Phelpstead, C. 2013 ‘Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: Hair Loss, the Tonsure, and Masculinity in Medieval Iceland’, Scandinavian Studies 85.1. 1-19.

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Williams, H. 2003 ‘Material culture as memory: combs and cremation in early medieval Britain’, Early Medieval Europe 12. 89–128.

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Hair and Sacrifice in the Andean World, as Deduced by Biomolecular Approaches

By Dr. Andrew Wilson
Senior Lecturer in Forensic and Archaeological Sciences
University of Bradford

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Wilson, A. (2016) Hair and Sacrifice in the Andean World, as deduced by biomolecular approaches, Internet Archaeology 42.

An individual’s first haircut is considered to be a major milestone in many world cultures and religions even today. It is interesting to note therefore that children placed as Inca child sacrifices in shrines on a number of the principal mountains in the Andes were found with many offerings, including small bags made of animal intestines containing cut human hair. The exceptional preservation of these young individuals offers huge potential for us to gain insight into the ritual process, given that most have remained in permafrost conditions since they were left on the mountain as part of the state-sanctioned Capacocha ceremony practised by the Inca.

Interdisciplinary research on the three individuals discovered close to the 6739m summit of Volcán Llullaillaco in north-west Argentina in 1999 has concentrated on the information embodied in their hair and the hair offerings that accompanied them. The eldest of the three individuals, known as the ‘Llullaillaco Maiden’, or ‘La Doncella’, has received most attention, not least because her hair was long and elaborately braided (Wilson et al. 2007; 2013; Figure 1) and because the biomolecular information retrieved from her hair presents a powerful and distinctive narrative about her in the final months leading up to her death.

Hair length is particularly important in bioarchaeological analyses, since from a very practical standpoint it offers the greatest insight into recent lifeways. Scalp hair grows on average roughly 1cm per month and as an incremental tissue can provide a detailed diachronic picture of chemical signatures that not only reflect patterns of dietary variation, but can also evidence physiological stress (e.g. disease, starvation, pregnancy and lactation), residential movement, and ingestion of alcohol and other substances (Wilson 2005; Thompson et al. 2014).

Figure 1: The Llullaillaco Maiden. Image credit: Andrew Wilson

The Llullaillaco Maiden’s hair at roughly 28cm in length offered more than two years-worth of data, evidencing transformative stages in the ritual process that culminated in her death. Most stark is the change in dietary intake twelve months before death. Variations in diet are often intimately linked to status and the dietary changes seen in the case of the Llullaillaco Maiden’s hair in essence show transition from a protein-poor highland C3 peasant diet to one characterised by elite foods. The change was rapid and involved both increased protein intake and a dramatic change resulting from consumption of C4 plants, indicative of maize. The magnitude of this change is noteworthy in that we also see that the dietary shift correlates with the start of a sustained chewing of coca leaves – with this elevation of status, the Maiden’s fate was sealed.

Significant among the biomolecular data is the fact that genetic analysis showed that the bagged human hair did indeed come from each of the individuals with whom they were associated. Crucial then is the timing of when the hair was cut. Conventional notions of hair cutting rites see this type of activity most commonly undertaken at a young age and initially therefore the assumption was that these individuals each went to their death with a childhood lock of hair. Yet, the serial isotopic measurements of both the scalp hair and the bagged hair were compared and the marked status shift twelve months before death was used to match the trend data in both samples, allowing us to pinpoint when the hair was cut – some six months before death.

The logistics involved in working at high elevation to prepare the mountaintop shrines and build structures, coupled with the logistics and timescales involved in selecting and bringing these children to the mountain, and the richness of the textiles, ceramics, statues and other offerings placed with them at these high-elevation shrines each point to the highest level of Imperial support. The rite that involved the cutting of the Maiden’s hair that was then bagged and carried with her to the mountaintop surely then saw the Maiden separated from normal elite status, perhaps as part of a ceremony at the Imperial capital of Cuzco.

Her hair again tells us when her mountain pilgrimage began. This phase of her journey was sustained by maize stored in waystations (tambos) along the Inca road network, prepared with water from different altitudes, and is reflected in the marked trend in changing carbon and oxygen isotope ratios in her hair over the final three months. The Maiden was found with cooking equipment and bags of dried llama camelid meat and maize, suggesting belief in a further phase of solo travel after death.

Final pieces of chemical evidence from the Maiden’s hair as her placement on the mountaintop drew nearer within her last few weeks, show that the coca leaves she had chewed since her status had first changed were now being consumed together with the alcoholic maize drink chicha. Finally, the neat and elaborate tight braiding of her hair indicates preparation in the very last days and hours, and may well have been the symbolic prelude to her ultimate separation from the living world and the commencement of an envisaged onward journey towards final incorporation in the realm of the gods.

These analyses offer clear insight into a complex ritual sequence and showcase the potential for detailed diachronic information from hair. The direct nature of this chilling evidence allows the children once again to recount their stories, which resonate with and amplify chroniclers’ accounts that post-date the Spanish conquest (Wilson et al. 2007; 2013). The fate of the Maiden was undoubtedly sealed when she became an Aclla (or chosen woman) around puberty. These individuals are described as living a separate existence under the guardianship of priestesses, learning specialised skills including weaving and chicha production and ultimately being given to local nobles as wives, being confirmed as priestesses, or killed as part of the Imperial capacocha rite (Wilson et al. 2013).


Thompson, A.H., Wilson, A.S. and Ehleringer, J.R. 2014 ‘Hair as a geochemical recorder: ancient to modern’, in T.E. Cerling (ed) Treatise on Geochemistry (vol. 14): Archaeology & Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Cambridge: Elsevier. 371-393.

Wilson, A.S. 2005 ‘Hair as a bioresource in archaeological study’, in D.J. Tobin (ed.) Hair in Toxicology: an Important Biomonitor, Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry. 321-345.

Wilson, A.S., Taylor, T., Ceruti, M.C., Chavez, J.A., Reinhard, J., Grimes, V., Meier-Augenstein, W., Cartmell, L., Stern, B., Richards, M.P., Worobey, M., Barnes, I. and Gilbert, M.T.P. 2007 ‘Stable isotope and DNA evidence for ritual sequences in Inca child sacrifice’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104(42). 16456-16461.

Wilson, A.S., Brown, E.L., Villa, C., Lynnerup, N., Healey, A., Ceruti, M.C., Reinhard, J., Previgliano, C.H., Araoz, F.A., Diez, J.G. and Taylor, T. 2013 ‘Archaeological, radiological, and biological evidence offer insight into Inca child sacrifice’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(33). 13322-13327.

Hair in the Middle Ages

By Dr. Kimberly-Joy Knight
Postdoctoral Research Associate in Medieval Studies
University of Sydney

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Knight, K. (2016) Hair in the Middle Ages, Internet Archaeology 42.

During the Middle Ages hair was charged with cultural meaning. Hair possesses various qualities that allow it to be a tool of social action; it is detachable, renewable and can be manipulated (Firth 1973). As a malleable body part it can be shaped, dyed, and removed so the treatment of hair is a pre-eminently socially visible act (Bartlett 1994). Hair can convey messages of social differentiation. During the medieval period, as at other times, hair was variously deployed as a marker of status, race, physical maturity, and sexual virility (Mills 2004). Hair also played an important role in medieval religious life. From the 7th century, the tonsure designated clerical status and reflected the theological notions of submission and self-denial. The tonsure became such an important marker of status that by the 11th century it was required by ecclesiastical law (Council of Toulouse 1119; Mills 2004, 111). Similarly, later medieval holy women including Clare of Assisi (d.1253), Catherine of Siena (d.1380), and Columba of Rieti (d.1501) were known to have cut their hair as a sign of devotion (Bynum 1987, 146).

Conversely, the pileous saint became particularly popular during the high and later Middle Ages. First I will examine the connection between hirsutism (the abnormal growth of hair) and holiness, and then explore the contexts in which detached hair was an important bearer of meaning. Locks of saints’ hair were venerated as relics and revered for their miraculous power, while the tresses of lovers were clipped and given as gifts that symbolised emotional bonds.

Hirsutism and Holiness

Figure 1: Mary of Egypt in the margin of MS Royal 10 E IV fol. 276r, c.1340. Image credit: ©The British Library Board, Royal 10 E IV fol. 276r. According to Pouvreau (2013 p.191), the marginal images of Mary of Egypt in this manuscript are the earliest depictions of a hirsute saint in the West.

In the later Middle Ages in western Christendom, legends and images of anchorite saints who became hairy, like beasts, increased in popularity, as fleeing from the corrupt world, in the image of the desert fathers, was encouraged. These hirsute penitent saints are found considerably earlier in the East than West (Husband 1980, 98). Stories of holy men and women who had grown wild as a consequence of their isolation stemmed from the Apophthegmata Patrum (an influential collection of over a thousand stories and sayings of the Desert Fathers, dating from late 5th or early 6th century), and had affinities with eastern pre-Christian traditions (Williams 1926, 116). One of the Church Fathers, John Chrysostom (d.407), is an extensively represented hairy saint. From the 15th century, the image of John as a wild hirsute creature appeared in the West with remarkable frequency, although there appears to be no connection between the historical theologian and the later apocryphal legend in which the saint flees to the desert to avoid sexual temptation (Husband 1980, 102). Similarly, the legend of the 4th-century hirsute saint Onuphrius originated in the East but emerged in the West in the 13th and 14th century in Italy and Spain, before thriving in Northern Europe in the 15th century (Husband 1980, 98). Onuphrius was the son of a noble pagan ruler who doubted his legitimacy and tested him in a trial by fire. The young boy survived unharmed, and spent the first part of his life in an Egyptian monastery. When he reached maturity, Onuphrius left the monastery to pursue the life of a recluse in the wilderness near Thebes. He remained naked in the desert for seventy years and grew thick hair to protect his body against the elements. Mistaken by hunters for wild animals, these hirsute saints are often chased, a metaphor for the saint’s pursuit of spiritual salvation (Husband 1980, 97).

Figure 2: Mary of Egypt in a manuscript leaf from Rouen, France c.1480-1490. Image credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 37, fol. 153v. Unknown artist, Saint Mary of Egypt, Rouen, France, c.1480-1490; Tempera colors, gold leaf, gold paint, silver paint, and ink on parchment; 12.4 x 9.2 cm.

Several pileous female saints also became particularly popular in the West during the later Middle Ages. Penitential saints, including Mary of Egypt and Mary Magdalene, who were believed to be guilty of sexual impropriety, were identified by their wild, flowing hair, which became a symbol of their repentance (see Husband 1980, 95-109; Figures 1-3). Mary Magdalene, who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears, and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:38), appears in 13th-century depictions with a thick coating of hair, and it seems that her vita was conflated with elements of the life of Mary of Egypt, a harlot saint from Alexandria who withdrew to the desert to avoid sexual temptation (Pouvreau 2013). In later medieval images both saints are depicted covered with hair which conceals and protects the flesh, while simultaneously acting as the boundary between the interior and exterior (Pouvreau 2013, 191). In these legends the purity of the soul is contrasted with the bestial nature of the flesh.

Figure 3: Image credit: Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program, MS Ludwig IX 6, fol. 223. Workshop of the Bedford Master: Mary Magdalene Borne Aloft to Heaven by Angels from Paris, France, c.1440-50; Tempera colors, gold leaf, gold paint, and ink on parchment; whole leaf: 23.5 x 16.4 cm.

Hair Relics

Hair was among the first type of relic to be collected from holy bodies because, along with fingernails and teeth, they were the only parts allowed to be taken on theological grounds. Until the 9th century there was a desire to keep the body of saints whole, but hair could be taken as it was deemed to be superfluous, and an element that continued to grow after death (Angenendt 2011, 22-3). When the reluctance to divide up a saint’s body waned, hair continued to be an important relic. Revealing the incorruptible body of a saint was crucial in the legitimisation of sanctity and the establishment of a cult. The uncorrupted body of a saint was interpreted as a sign of grace and reflected the imperishability hoped for in the Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:42; Angenendt 2011, 221). It was often the perfectly preserved hair of an exhumed saint that provided evidence of their holiness, and rebuffed potential detractors. One of the earliest biographers to refer to the cult of relics, Ambrose’s biographer Paulinus recorded that when the early Christian martyr Nazarius was disinterred at the end of the 4th century, the saint’s hair was perfectly preserved, and ‘not a hair on his head had been lost’ (Lk. 21:18) (Snoek 1995, 3202). Finding the unspoiled hair of a saint during their exhumation became a hallmark in the formation of a cult.

When the coffin of the first Christian king of Norway, Ólaf Trygvasson (d.1000), was disinterred twelve months after his passing, those present observed a great change in the former king’s hair and nails: they had grown almost as much as if he had been alive. The beard and hair were subsequently trimmed and put into the fire in order to ascertain whether they could be deemed holy relics. When the bishop took the hair out of fire, it had not burned. Ólaf was then officially declared a saint and miracles began to take place at his shrine (Ađalbjarnarson 1945, 404-5). Like other types of relics, hair had a prophylactic power. The hair of Hildegard of Bingen (d.1179) was preserved in a small silk casket (pyxidula serica) on the altar and when a fire swept through the church, the relics were found to be unharmed by the flames (Bruder 1883, 1233; Figure 4). The hair of saints also had the power to work miracles before and after death. The life of the beguine (a member of a lay religious order) Marie d’Oignies (d.1213), written by her confessor Jacques de Vitry c.1215, records the story of a man who, despite being attended to by a number of doctors, was told to await his death because nothing could be done to alleviate his sickness. However, the man received health by the touch of Marie’s hair (ad tactum capillorum eius recepit sanitatem) (Huygens 2012, 1074). Furthermore, hair relics had apotropaic powers. A single hair of Hildegard of Bingen had the power to arouse protest from a demon who was plaguing a woman (Bruder 1883, 1245).

Figure 4: Portable Altar; Hildesheim, Germany c.1190-1200. Image credit: ©British Museum, London. PE 1902, 0625.1. Copper gilt over a wooden core, limestone, painted vellum, rock crystal and ivory; 35.4 x 25.1cm.

Display and Veneration of Hair Relics

Hair relics needed to be carefully preserved because of their delicate nature. The Middle Ages saw the proliferation of lavish, bejewelled reliquaries in which to house the precious remains of saints. Their spectacular appearance highlighted their importance as repositories of spiritual power.

Magnus the Good, King of Norway (r.1040-1047), had a reliquary made to contain the hair and fingernail relics of his saintly father Ólaf. The relic box was adorned with gold and silver and inlaid with precious stones (Ađalbjarnarson 1951, 20). The sumptuously decorated Hildesheim portable altar (c.1190-1200) contains the relics of forty saints, each of whom is named on the reverse. The accumulation of relics in a single piece served to increase the altar’s sacredness, and numbered among its contents is the hair of St John the Evangelist, wrapped in textile and carefully labelled. The portable altar was a way of reaching remote places or those who could not go on pilgrimages. In this way, many people could come into contact with the holy material treasured inside. Charlemagne (d.814) is also said to have possessed a portable hair relic. Known as the ‘Talisman of Charlemagne’, the pendant reliquary was crafted from gold and encrusted with filigree, pearls, garnets, emeralds and a large sapphire (Robinson 2011, 113; Figure 5). An inventory from the 12th or 13th century suggests that the amulet contained the hair of the Virgin Mary (Robinson 2011, 113). Relics of the Virgin were believed to be rare, owing to her assumption into heaven, so fragments of her hair, breast milk and clothing were particularly precious.

Figure 5: The Talisman of Charlemagne; Aachen, Germany, 9th century. 6.5 x 7.3 x 3.8 cm Treasury of Notre-Dame, Palais du Tau, Reims. DTAU1927000007 Image credit: ©Genevra Kornbluth.

The popularity and ubiquity of hair relics in the high and later Middle Ages is attested in English relic catalogues, often drawn up by larger churches. In a list of ornaments dated to 1316, the Cathedral Priory of Christ Church in Canterbury claimed to possess the hairs of St Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary; St Cecily, an early Roman martyr; St Edmund Rich, the former Archbishop of Canterbury (r.1233-40); St Francis, founder of the Franciscan order (d.1226); Laurence, a 3rd-century martyred archdeacon from Rome; Peter the Apostle, and Thecla, the first disciple of St Paul (MS Cotton MS Galba E IV, ff. 122v-127v; Thomas 1974). Similarly, a list compiled at St Cuthbert’s Shrine in Durham in 1383 describes how the church possesses ‘the hair of a great many saints’ (de capillis plurimorum sanctorum), including two relics with hair of Mary Magdalene; the hair of the abbot St Bernard in a purse with a shield; hair from St Bartholomew; pieces of rib and hair from St Bernard; the hair of the venerable Robert de Stanhope; the beard of St Goderic; and some cloth and hair from St Boisil the priest (Fowler 1899, 426-356). In addition to the devastation of the Reformation, the chemical fragility of hair means that it is rarely preserved (see Ashby, this issue). Consequently, reliquaries leave no traces of the hair they were said to contain, even those as famous as the Talisman of Charlemagne.

It is evident that hair was an important bearer of meaning in the context of medieval religious life; however, the adoration of hair was not limited to the sacred. During the later medieval period locks of hair were potent symbols of romantic love and the growth or clipping of hair could communicate powerful emotional statements.

Hair as Love Tokens

Hair is a part of the body that can be easily detached and transferred to another person and thus it could be transformed from a raw material into a love token. The cutting of hair in order to make a token of affection was a strong personal and emotional statement. The 14th-century French romance of the Castelain de Couci et de la Dame de Fayel describes how locks of hair were exchanged by lovers before a departure (Petit and Suard 1994; see also Sleeman 1981). A lock of hair was a piece of the person who was left behind; it became an emotional aide memoire for the recipient and kept the lovers connected during times of absence. While hair could be clipped before a departure, its growth could also symbolise the length of time that lovers had been apart. In the poetry of Chrétien de Troyes, written in the 12th century, men refused to shave their beards until they were reunited with their beloved (for the symbolism of beards not being removed, see Ashby this issue). Finally, hair was an intimate element that engaged the sensory mode. In Chrétien de Troyes’ Knight of the Cart, Lancelot finds a comb that preserves some of the fair hair of Queen Guinevere. He presses the hair to his mouth and face, which induces feelings of joy and delight and stimulates his desire for Guinevere (Rogers 1984).


Hair offers many paradoxical readings. From the rough covering of hirsute saint’s skin to the delicate tresses of a lover, hair could both shield the body and deny sexual temptation yet, in other instances, stimulate erotic desire. The multiple qualities of hair and the diversity of ‘hair behaviour’ (see Ashby, this volume), allow it to convey many different meanings and its reading remains highly contextualised. In the cases presented here, hair was prized in both sacred and secular contexts: it was venerated by the faithful, cherished by lovers, and a powerful symbol of flight from the world.


I wish to thank Julian Luxford for providing me with a copy of Islwyn Geoffrey Thomas’ wonderful unpublished thesis on relic lists in medieval England. In addition, I would like to thank John Shinners and Genevra Kornbluth from the Medieval Religion discussion list for drawing my attention to the hair relics in the Durham account roll and the Talisman of Charlemagne respectively. Finally, I am grateful to John Hudson for his continued support and encouragement.

Dr Kimberley-Joy Knight is the recipient of an Australian Research Council Post-Doctoral Fellowship (project number CE110001011).


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Watery Manes, Reversing the Stream of Thought about Quattrocento Italian Heads

By Dr. Emanuele Lugli
Lecturer in Art, Architecture, and Visual Culture in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe
University of York

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as  Lugli, E. (2016) Watery Manes. Reversing the Stream of Thought about Quattrocento Italian Heads, Internet Archaeology 42.

In a famous passage, Leonardo da Vinci compares the flow of water to hair:

‘Consider the movement of the surface of water. It behaves like hair, which has two motions: one conforms to the weight of the mane, the others to the wandering of the locks. Likewise water has its eddying movements, one part of which follows the principal current, the other the random and reverse motion.’ (Windsor Castle, Royal Library: RL 12579r; translated by the author).

The passage is an apt commentary on the wondrous drawings of streams Leonardo sketched on the side of the text (Figure 1), and it has been read as proof of Leonardo’s magnificent capacity to use analogy (Gombrich 1976; Rosand 2002; Kemp 2006; Siegert 2014). Yet I find the passage engrossing for two other reasons. First, it reverses the cultural primacy of water over hair, according to which the latter is usually informed and shaped by our knowledge of the former. This is true even linguistically. We speak after all of hair ‘waves’ and, as Quintilian pointed out in his Latin grammar (which became highly influential after the book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered it in 1416), the Roman Latin word ‘vertex’ denotes a whirlpool before it was connected with the coiling of hair and thus the crown of one’s head (Quintilian, Inst. 8.2.7; Cousin 1975; Murru 1983). In contrast to the normal use of language, Leonardo states that when thinking about the nature of water, it is hair that may offer the model, and not the other way around.

Figure 1: Leonardo da Vinci, Water Studies, Windsor, Royal Library RL 12579r. Royal Collection Trust / ©Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

Leonardo then assigns to hair an unexpected, prototypical role, far from the decorative function to which scholarship has often relegated it. To emphasise it is a way to increase the role of hair in early modern art and open up alternative readings that, given the weight of discourses on Renaissance art for the wider discipline, may ripple the surface of other periods as well as other fields. While there are a number of studies dedicated to the depiction of hairstyles in the Renaissance, these are mostly seen as pointers to something external rather than as artistic entities in their own right (Wright 1999; Welch 2009). The questions they ask are related to the status of the coiffed sitter or to beauty conventions, with much emphasis on the moral directives against adornments proclaimed by mendicant orders and taken up by governments (Rainey 1985, 516-519; Muzzarelli 2009; Gnignera 2010). The wildly popular Franciscan preacher Bernardine of Siena rebuked women for wearing extensions made of ‘cadavers’ hair’ (del Corno 1989, 1074-1075), an expression that in the scholarly literature has become as famous as Leonardo’s. The religious diktats and the political protocols of Quattrocento Italy often converge and historians often uncritically repeat them rather than considering another possibility: that hair may not have been treated just as a passive ornament.

One influential Renaissance scholar who internalised Quattrocento sumptuary laws and the stance of office-holding elites, is the 19th-century art critic Giovanni Morelli. Morelli labelled hair as a secondary pictorial element, one that the painter approached automatically, without any creative thinking (Morelli 1982, 107, 155, 181, 193, 230n). Paradoxically, its passivity was of prime importance for Morelli, who took hair, as well as other minor pictorial elements, such as ear lobes and drapery, as a major clue to identify an artist’s hand. His method was hardly different from the then contemporary hair checks that police undertook to spot criminals or ethnologists to classify races (Haddon 1900, 2; Selenka 1900, 31; Ginzburg 1980, 17-19). A student of medicine brought up by Calvinist principles, Morelli turned a moralising attitude into an allegedly scientific method thus confirming, without the shadow of a doubt, that hair’s place was on the periphery of art, far from the attention bestowed by Leonardo and other painters of gorgeous, watery manes.

Yet, of course, water is not like hair as it is only through drawing, or disegno in Italian, that water resembles hair. A crucial concept for many Renaissance artists, disegno actually does not mean drawing even if it is often taken as its synonym. Rather, disegno is drawing sublimed to an abstract idea, of Platonic derivation, that exists beyond the physical trace of chalk or pencil on paper (Cropper 1994; Faietti and Wolf 2012). Disegno is to drawing what the geometrical definition of a point is to its graphic representation as a dot. It is a way of thinking that transcends any tool and allows an artist like Leonardo to apply himself to a variety of disciplines regardless of the materials and techniques involved. To master disegno is to master artistic invention of any kind.

But then disegno does not represent the mid-point in the hair-water relationship, as hair strands can be effectively rendered by lines. The relationship between hair and lines resembles that between a stamp and its trace, whereas hair offers a way to model the movements of water through disegno. Giulio Mancini, an important collector and art dealer who was born shortly after Leonardo died, reflects on the close association of hair and lines when he writes that ‘curls and waves of hair […] are very laborious to do […] and are like the strokes of the pen and flourishes in handwriting, which need the master’s sure and resolute touch’ (Marucchi 1956, 34). The sentence is part of a larger reflection on how to distinguish the work of a master from that of a pupil, but is enlightening as it confirms, once again, the modelling role of hair: hair as the organic, natural counterpart of drawing, with all its infinite possibilities of flourishes and types of handwriting. Like Leonardo, Mancini bestows great importance on the depiction of hair, as mastery in art depends on it. Yet, what Mancini does not say is that the connection of hair and drawing is as much representational as it is technological. The tiniest brushes of the Renaissance, those employed to paint strands of hair, were often made of only one hair, plucked from a pig or a squirrel tail, so that a painted hair should be taken as a trace of its real self (Quiviger 2003, 101-103). In that case, what does a line stand for in water? Is the edge of a ripple a mere optical illusion? Are waves necessarily modelled on something else as water escapes the geometricisation of disegno?

Figure 2: Mariano di Jacopo, Water Lock, De ingeneis, Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 197, II, 114v. ©Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

Leonardo’s quote cascades into a waterfall of questions. Yet to return to the current on which we set sail, there is a second reason that makes his parallel of hair and water intriguing. A simile can after all also be read in the opposite direction, which means that manes can also be interpreted through the filter of water and that hairstyling can be explained by hydraulics. It is thus interesting to note that the literature on water management grew at the same time as artists’ exploration of the expressive possibilities of hair. Around the 1430s, when the sculptor Donatello modelled putti whose hair streams in all directions, as well as young men with beautifully chiselled locks, Mariano di Jacopo (often known as ‘Taccola’) wrote De ingeneis [On Engines], a treatise on siphons, cisterns, and canals (Prager and Scaglia 1972, xi). In it he included the drawing of a dam (Figure 2) that turns the placid waters of a lake into a controlled stream, which produces the whirls that fascinated Leonardo. And in the 1470s, when the outpouring of treatises on water engineering reached a high degree of sophistication, thanks to experts such as Filarete and Francesco di Giorgio Martini, famed painter Andrea del Verrocchio created some of the most stupendous headgear of the Renaissance (Galluzzi 1991).

Figure 3: Verrocchio, Head of a Woman, London, 1475, London, British Museum, drawing on paper, Inv. n. 1895,0915.785, recto. ©Trustees of the British Museum

Look at the detail in the woman’s hair-style as portrayed in Verrocchio’s British Museum drawing (Figure 3). While her fringe loosely falls over her temples, the hair on the top of her head is gathered into two braids, which, after a double loop on each side, join in the centre, fastened by a jewel. On the other side of the paper (Figure 4), Verrocchio sketched the same head but without hair and without the polished care that he bestowed on his more finished drawing. The strokes around the cheek and the forehead are brisk and he went over the contours more than once, as if trying to get the silhouette right. In some points the hatching is summary: there is just enough to render the slenderness of the nose and the overall profile (Rubin and Wright 1999, 185-187; Savello 2012, 63-66; on the drawing, see also Covi 2005, 216-217). Such hastiness indicates that Verrocchio was drawing from a model. Do the longer strokes on the left suggest that the model supported her head with her hand during the tiring drawing session? It is also interesting to ponder over the effects of reworking the model’s hair, which was pulled back, as suggested by the curved strokes springing from the forehead, into a wonderful coiffure. The turning of the page signals a division in work between the drawing from a model and the invention of her coiffure. And such a difference is the reason why scholars include the drawing among the ‘fantastic heads’ of the Renaissance (Kemp 1977), or ‘idealised heads’ (Viatte 1994, 45-53; Simons 1995). Such labels imply the existence of two mindsets, one that aims at speed and veracity and the other which is instead regulated by a process of distillation and exclusion, that is a fantasia. (On the realism/fantasia dichotomy, a leitmotif of Renaissance art history, see Zeri 1983; Bull 2005, 389-394.) Let’s return for a second to Verrocchio’s drawing to look at that smoky tuft of hair that emerges from the braided loop. Its direction enhances the diagonal trajectory of the woman’s gaze, working in counterpoint to the out-of-frame object of her attention. Here hair does not frame the face: it injects meaning in that gaze by cantilevering out. By filling the top right corner of the sheet, it is also the element that binds the drawing to the format of its physical support. In other words, hair is here a constructive force.

Figure 4: Verrocchio, Head of a Woman, London,1475, London, British Museum, drawing on paper, Inv. n. 1895,0915.785, verso. ©Trustees of the British Museum

Verrocchio handed down his interest in hair to Leonardo and shared it with many of his collaborators, among whom was Sandro Botticelli. Consider the Portrait of a Lady in Frankfurt’s Städel Museum (Figure 5), which is sometimes attributed to his workshop (Christiansen and Weppelmann 2011, 120-123). The sitter’s coiffure stands out if we consider it as a quantifiable expanse. The proportional amount of surface it occupies is enormous, and so must have been the time spent on its depiction, since, as Mancini remarks, ‘curls and waves of hair are very laborious to do’. Like Leonardo, hair is here treated as both weighty mass and impalpable, gravity-defying thing. And like in Verrocchio, hair is regarded as an unruly stream, but also as the very material that makes up the barriers in which it flows. It is as if Botticelli plaited the lady’s locks to resemble the rope of Taccola’s winch (Figure 2). Her braids are neatly parted and from the knots at their ends spring an outpouring of hair, like the streams rushing across the opening in the dam. The strings of pearls reference Venus, a beauty born by the sea, and turn the sitter (whether real, imaginary, or in between) into a deity of fantastical beauty and wealth. Yet, draped over the lady’s head, the arrangement of pearls are like a fish net and turn the lady’s hair into a watery expanse. Such metamorphic possibilities reveal hairstyles not as mere representations of the conventional adornments of the wealthy, but as creative pictorial fields whose cultural possibilities emerge once we draw in wider theories from anthropology, ethnography, and even the history of technology.

Figure 5: Sandro Botticelli, Idealized portrait of a Lady, c. 1475, Frankfurt, Staedel Museum ca. 1475, tempera on poplar, Inv. No. 936. ©Städel Museum, Städel Museum Artothek


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Hair as a Windown on Diet and Health in Post-Medieval London: An Isotopic Analysis

By Dr. Michelle Alexander (with Chloe Brown)
Lecturer in Bioarchaeology
University of York

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Brown, C. and Alexander, M. (2016) Hair as a Window on Diet and Health in Post-Medieval London: an isotopic analysis, Internet Archaeology 42.

Attitudes to hair in 19th-century society support interpretations on the role of hair as a social and political tool, through the manipulation of personal appearance and the process of acquisition of hair itself (Ashby 2014). Hair was a significant symbol of ‘consumer culture’, used to express individual power and identity. Human hair was utilised for jewellery, wigs and hairpieces, becoming a valuable commodity in Britain (Miller 1982; Ofek 2009; Lutz 2011). Scientific analysis of the material of hair itself, however, unlocks information that can shed further light on sociocultural interaction, giving information on food procurement and consumption (DeNiro and Schoeniger 1983).

Isotopic analysis of bone for dietary reconstruction has been routinely practised in archaeology since the 1970s (Vogel and Van der Merwe 1977) and provides a long-term average of the diet over the last 10-30 years before death (Hedges et al. 2007). Unlike bone, however, hair grows incrementally (~1cm a month for human hair), providing time series information, and offering a valuable window on diet during the final months before death (White 1993; Kutschera and Mϋller 2003; Wilson et al. 2007; see Wilson, this issue). Despite this, hair has received comparatively little attention, primarily owing to its poor preservation on archaeological sites, mummies being an exception (see Wilson, this issue). Post-medieval remains, however, present an ideal case study, often being well preserved and possessing biographical data giving additional context. This short article presents a study of incremental analysis of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotopes from hair sampled from a 19th-century individual, ‘Elizabeth Robinson’ (skeleton 48, Figure 1) deriving from an assemblage from St Barnabas church, West Kensington, where 55/58 burials had name plates and recorded dates of birth and death. She lived between 1768 and 1840, and died at 72 years of age. The research forms part of a wider project on post-medieval diets (Brown 2014).

Figure 1: Scalp hair sample from Elizabeth Robinson (SK48) from the St Barnabas assemblage


The hair underwent a 3-phase preparation following published methods (Tankersley and Koster 2009; Williams and Katzenberg 2012; Beaumont et al. 2013). The hair was soaked twice in a solution of 7 parts Dichloromethane to 1 part Methyl alcohol, to remove contaminants and lipids. It was then rinsed three times with ultrapure water and dried at 40°C for 48 hours. Lastly, the hair was cut into 1.5cm increments from root to tip, and 1mg aliquots of each increment were analysed in duplicate by elemental analysis/isotope ratio mass spectrometry (EA/IRMS, Sercon, Crewe, UK) at the University of York. Analytical error calculated from repeated measurement of an internal standard was <0.2 ‰ (1σ).

Results and Discussion

Table 1: Isotopic data for Elizabeth Robinson (SK48) by increment
Increment δ13C (‰) δ15N (‰)
1 -19.08 12.71
2 -19.32 11.18
3 -19.35 10.58
4 -19.09 10.76
5 -18.89 10.93
6 -19.13 11.17
7 -19.14 11.23

Table 1 presents the carbon and nitrogen isotopic results of the work; these are plotted in Figure 2, and summary statistics are provided in Table 2. The values are suggestive of a C3 terrestrial-based diet, with a substantial input of animal protein (meat, dairy etc.), but little in the way of marine fish or C4 plants (maize). There is a wider range in δ15N (2.1 ‰) compared to δ13C (0.5 ‰) values for hair, and what is striking here is the marked increase in δ15N values during the most recent growth phases before death, while δ13C values show little variation.

Figure 2: Incremental δ13C and δ15N values for Elizabeth Robinson (SK48) plotted from proximal (the root) to distal (the hair tip) ends

A fluctuation in δ15N values accompanied by a similar variation in δ13C values is suggestive of dietary change (O’Connell and Hedges 1999; Williams and Katzenberg 2012). However, 15N-enrichment alone more likely reflects extreme physiological stress. Isotopic behaviour of this kind is consistent with the nutritional deprivation demonstrated by anorexia nervosa patients (Mekota et al. 2006) and pregnant women with acute morning sickness (Fuller et al. 2004). It has also been reported for famine sufferers identified in post-medieval populations from London (Beaumont et al. 2013). This phenomenon may therefore be an indication of nutritional and physiological stress before death, perhaps due to serious illness.

Table 2: The hair keratin statistics from St Barnabas (alongside the Devon site of West Butts: Wilson 2008, 49), two London sites, Spitalfields (O’Connell and Hedges 1999), and Lukin Street (Beaumont et al. 2013) and the Birmingham site of St Martin’s (Richards 2006). West Butts is represented by two individuals
Site n Mean δ13C (‰, 1σ) Min (‰) Max (‰) Mean δ15N (‰, 1σ) Min (‰) Max (‰)
Barnabas 1 -19.1 ± 0.2 -19.4 -18.9 11.2 ± 0.7 10.6 12.8
Lukin street 6 -19.3 ± 1.2 -20.5 -17.0 11.5 ± 0.5 11.0 12.3
Spitalfields 17 -19.4 ± 0.6 -20.3 -18.0 11.1 ± 0.8 10.2 12.5
West Butts 1 -19.7 10.4
1 -19.9 9.8
St.Martin’s 30 -19.7 ± 0.6 -23.1 -18.4 11.1 ± 0.8 7.8 13.0

The bone collagen isotope values for this individual were -18.1 ‰ for δ13C and 13.55 ‰ for δ15N (Brown 2014), showing higher δ15N and δ13C values compared to keratin, and which is in keeping with an anticipated isotopic offset between the two tissues (O’Connell et al. 2001), although the difference in nitrogen is large (2.3 ‰). The hair data may indicate a change to a diet with lower δ15N values later in life. This may suggest less animal protein was consumed, perhaps pointing to declining health. A similar finding was reported for a possible 19th-century migrant in from Lukin Street, London (Beaumont et al. 2013).

Figure 3: Isotopic values for hair keratin from Elizabeth Robinson, St Barnabas (alongside the Devon site of West Butts: Wilson 2008, 49), two London sites, Spitalfields (O’Connell and Hedges 1999), and Lukin Street (Beaumont et al. 2013) and the Birmingham site of St Martin’s (Richards 2006). Coloured ellipses represent ±1σ for sites with sample numbers >2. Error bars on Barnabus represent ±1σ for multiple increments on a single individual. West Butts is represented by two individuals.

Placing the St Barnabas individual in a wider context, the mean hair isotopic values are compared with published values in Table 2 and Figure 3. The area of Chelsea around St Barnabas church is well known for being an affluent area (Shepherd et al. 1974). Elizabeth Robinson plots most closely to populations from the two other London sites (Lukin Street and Spitalfields), but these populations were likely of lower socioeconomic status, Lukin Street being a workhouse and Spitalfields considered middle class (Molleson and Cox 1993). The Barnabas individual fits into a growing isotopic dataset for the post-medieval period that suggests that higher δ15N values do not always correlate with socioeconomic status as they often do for earlier time periods (e.g. Le Huray and Schutkowski 2005 for the prehistoric period; Reitsema and Vercellotti 2012 for the Middle Ages), but instead appear to be linked with city living (Beaumont et al. 2013). This may result from manuring around human settlements and particularly the use of night soil (Shearer et al. 1983; Bogaard et al. 2007; Beaumont et al. 2013). This supports current theories that elevated nitrogen isotopic signals may result from continued activity on the land, and may distinguish between urban and rural sites (Nardoto et al. 2006; Commisso and Nelson 2010; Beaumont et al. 2013).


The exceptional advantage of multiple-tissue isotopic analysis is the potential for increased depth of study on an individual level. The utilisation of scientific data alongside historical documentation provides a window into past lives otherwise lost in generalist recording systems, and the addition of hair analysis allows for an extended historical biography to be constructed up to the months before death. In this example, biological markers suggesting chronic disease have been detected, allowing us to infer dietary change over the individual’s lifecourse, showcasing the great potential for incremental isotopic analysis of hair in illuminating past lives.


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Mekota, A.M., Grupe, G., Ufer, S. and Cuntz, U. 2006 ‘Serial analysis of stable nitrogen and carbon isotopes in hair: monitoring starvation and recovery phases of patients suffering from anorexia nervosa’, Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 20(10). 1604-1610.

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Because You’re Worth It: Women’s Daily Hair Routines in Contemporary Britain

By Dr. Sabine Hielscher
Research Fellow
Science Policy Research Institute, University of Sussex

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Hielscher, S. (2016) Because You’re Worth It: Women’s daily hair care routines in contemporary Britain, Internet Archaeology 42.

Hair care is a significant international industry – estimated to be worth over £1.44 billion in contemporary Britain (Mintel 2015). Given this, it is perhaps not so surprising to learn that British women spend on average £40,000 on their hair over a lifetime (Sharkey 2014). However, despite women’s preoccupation with hair, social science research has paid little attention to this area (McCracken 1997; Cox 1999).

Most previous studies have examined the changing nature of styles and fashion, offering valuable insights into its symbolic, ritualistic and religious nature and in turn demonstrating the conspicuous aspects of hair (Cox 1999; Biddle-Perry and Cheang 2008). While the public nature of hair has been documented, what is rarely explored is the private world of hair care, often part of a wider network of day-to-day domestic routines (Shove 2003).

My in-depth research into women’s daily hair care (Hielscher 2011; 2013) has shown that during these ‘private’ moments women interact with their hair visually and tactilely, considering both their own personal tastes as well as social acceptability. As such, these frequent interactions have a far wider significance than simply ‘doing your hair’, as they can reveal dynamics of social life through notions of what it is to have socially acceptable hair.

The methodology of this research had to consider ways of examining the intimate practice of hair care that is mainly carried out alone, normally without the presence of a researcher. Instead of merely relying on verbal accounts, several sources of data were used. Women disclosed the various places where they do things to their hair and keep their hair care products and tools around their home. Sometimes women even demonstrated their use. Products and tools had an integrated part in the open-ended interviews. The more visual insights into women’s hair care routines, such as photographs and the evocative interviewing technique (the method gathers detailed accounts of lived experiences and processes, away from verbalised memories, generalisations and opinions: Light 2006), aided the process of accessing more ‘observational’ insights without having to conduct detailed observations.

Through studying daily hair care routines many different narratives could be told. For example, the predicament that women can face between balancing their own ‘naturally’ produced bodily substances, with the need to apply ‘synthetic’ hair care products.

‘Because I straighten the hair, I need to buy these products to counterbalance it. Even if they may damage it further, or might not help, they make it temporarily better.’ ‘Winona’ — teacher mid-30s, married with one child living in Southern England

An additional narrative is based on the interplay between what women do routinely with their hair and moments where this routine changes, whether such instances are desired or not. However, what runs through all of these accounts is how the process of dealing with hair, such as shampooing or drying it, and the embodied experience of the material propensities, such as greasiness or frizziness, is just as important as the final visual result. By concentrating on the ordinary nature of the performance of hair care and its materialisation through daily interaction, it is possible to gain a more subtle understanding of how women attempt to achieve socially acceptable hair. So it is not simply about the appearance of the hair, for example, by checking in the mirror or seeking reassurance, but also the underlying embodied feelings that women experience in seeking to create hair that looks ‘normal’ to them.

‘I just felt like I wanted to get my hair washed so I did feel better… I was just aware of it and it felt really greasy and I felt mucky.’ ‘Simone’ — nursery nurse mid-30s, living in Northern England

The significance of embodied feelings becomes particularly apparent when women are not able to go through their usual daily hair care routine. Several women in the study described times when their hair became ‘alien’ to them and how they would be aware of it, for instance, when leaving it ‘untouched’ in the morning. Similar to a piece of clothing, hair can be perceived as if it is a ‘prosthesis’, an addition to the body that does not fuse with the wearer (see Woodward 2007 for a study on clothes). It becomes somehow external, perceived to be like a piece of clothing that can be worn but not taken off.

‘Sometimes I find it really, really, really irritates me. Just it being around, you know all being around my neck that really irritates me.’ ‘Holly’ — student early 20s, living in Northern England

During these days the hair feels different from how it is usually experienced when women could go through their usual motions of dealing with their hair. The majority of women developed long-term routines during which they created an understanding of how their ‘normal’ hair feels and looks. Such hair heavily relies on women going through the usual process of dealing with it, as it helps to create a mental picture of whether the hair feels and looks ‘nice’ or ‘awful’.

‘It’s not that it looks greasy or anything, it is just because I know myself that I’ve not took that time in the morning to wash it. Somebody else might not know that I have not washed it that morning. It is just me I am aware of it.’ ‘Tracey’ — administrator early 30s, divorced with one child living in Northern England

For some it was the case that ‘untouched’ hair, because, for example, lack of time, can result in reduced confidence or even feeling less professional at work and in the process demonstrating the social significance of everyday hair care routines. The women were generally uncomfortable with the experience of untouched hair and tried to avoid this or at least carry out their daily routines as soon as possible in order to become part of the self again.

In conclusion, the production of socially acceptable hair does not only rely on visual interactions with hair but also how it is sensually experienced and the time invested in caring for the hair. The practice of hair care is characterised by regularity that relies on routine ways of experiencing the hair and normalising standards. Due to the performance of hair care, routines can be reinforced and ‘progressively integrated into the habit body’ (Dant 2005, 97), highlighting that the process of dealing with the hair can be as significant as its end result. Such findings are of significance not only in achieving a deeper understanding of the embodied nature of daily routines today, but also in how a focus on performance can be used to enrich historical and archaeological accounts and the tensions that arise from attempting to create hair that is socially acceptable.


I would like to thank the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) for their financial support and Nicolette Fox and Rose Cairns for their important comments.


Biddle-Perry, G. and Cheang, S. (eds) 2008 Hair: Styling Culture and Fashion, Oxford: Berg Publishers.

Cox, C. 1999 Good Hair Days: A History of British Hairdressing, London: Quartet Books.

Dant, T. 2005 Materiality and Society, Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Hielscher, S. 2011 Are you worth it? A practice-orientated approach to everyday hair care to inform sustainable design and sustainable consumption strategies, Unpublished PhD thesis, Nottingham Trent University.

Hielscher, S. 2013 ‘“Good” and “bad” shine’, Journal of Design History 26(3). 257-269.

Light, A. 2006 ‘Adding method to meaning: a technique for exploring peoples’ experience with technology’, Behaviour & Information Technology 25(2). 175-187.

McCracken, G. 1997 Big Hair: a Journey to the Transformation of Self, London: Indigo.

Mintel, 2015 Women’s Haircare — UK, Mintel International Group Ltd.

Sharkey, L. 2014 ‘Average British woman spends £140,000 on hair and cosmetics in her lifetime, research reveals’, The Independent, [Online] 3 September 2014. [Last accessed: 26 August 2015].

Shove, E. 2003 Comfort, Cleanliness and Convenience: The Social Organization of Normality, Oxford: Berg.

Woodward, S. 2007 Why Women Wear What They Wear, Oxford: Berg.

Afterword: Strands of Evidence in Later Prehistory

By Dr. Melanie Giles
Senior Lecturer in Archaeolgoy
University of Manchester

Originally published in Internet Archaeology as Giles, M. (2016) Afterword: Strands of Evidence in Later Prehistory, Internet Archaeology 42.

In the new gallery of Silkeborg Museum, devoted to stories of life and death in the Danish Iron Age bog landscape, there is a whole display case devoted to hair (Figure 1). Marvellously preserved by the peculiar qualities of the cold, oxygen-excluding, sphagnum moss, it gives us an unprecedented insight into the appearance, treatment and meaning of hair in later prehistory. On the left-hand side is a display of both real and reconstructed hairstyles of later prehistoric farmers, peat diggers and bog-ore miners. Mannequins display beautifully coiled, coiffed and twisted hair-settings of both men and women, re-imagined to conjure the intricacy with which these people styled their appearance. Miniature shears, combs and razors are used to evoke the care regimes for both head and facial hair, while on the right-hand side lies the prone body of Elling woman: her body revealed under layers of peat, covered by a hide cloak. Visitors’ eyes are drawn to the delicate plait of her hair, trailing down her back: an intimate and touching trace of this woman’s identity (Fischer 2012).

Figure 1: The Iron Age gallery of Silkeborg Museum, Denmark, showing the display case on hair, Elling woman and entrance into the Tollund Man gallery (© Silkeborg Museum, by kind permission of Ole Nielsen)

What is it about hair that helps humanise the dead, particularly these well-preserved bog bodies who are so often the victims of violence? As the articles in this special volume of Internet Archaeology make clear, hair is an exquisitely rich source of evidence on origin, diet and health as well as social traditions. Yet the meaning of hair can vary greatly between times and cultures. It is frequently treated as powerful, both as a substance in itself and as a metonym for strength, vitality or virility, but also by virtue of the ways in which it enhances appearance, height, and dramatic effect (Aldhouse-Green 2004). It has tensile strength when plaited yet it is a solid that can move fluidly. Strength, curl, colour and texture make it an integral part of our personality that can also allude to a family line or deeper genetic inheritance. How it is then worn, adorned or cut can be used to symbolise age, gender and status, and its growth, colouring, trimming or shaving can mark major transitions or rites of passage – puberty, oath-taking and initiation, marriage and even death. For example, the late Iron Age/early Roman chalk figure from Withernsea (East Yorkshire) depicts an idealised sword-carrying figure with severe parting, moustache and pointed beard, whereas a nearby sword burial with anthropoid hilt from North Grimston shows a male face with combed, braided or dreadlocked hair (Stead 1988; Giles 2012, 167, fig. 5.22). Both show ideals of martial masculinity partly conveyed through dramatic hair styling, in keeping with notions of the performative creation of beauty in the warrior (see Treherne 1995; Giles forthcoming). It is salutary, then, that when Cassius Dio seeks to evoke the terrifying ferocity of Boudica he makes special mention of ‘the greatest mass of the tawniest hair that fell to her hips’ (Roman History LXII.1-2), while Tacitus evokes the intimidatory shoreline of the battle of Mona (Anglesey) faced by Suetonius Paullinus through the black-robed woman with ‘dishevelled hair’ like Furies (Annals XIV, 30). Conditions such as pregnancy can result in dramatic thickening of women’s hair, whereas baldness, thinning and greying are key ways in which age but also wisdom can be signalled in ancient texts and images. As several articles note, its remarkable survival (as in the case of saintly preservation) can even be interpreted as an embodiment of sacred authority or divine favour: transforming it into the status of a relic in its own right.

Hair-care is one of the familiar, routine rituals of personal grooming that can bring both pleasure and pride to one’s sense of self, but it is also one of the most tender and comforting acts of care that can be bestowed upon another human. It is rewarding to see the articles in this volume treat the instruments of hair-preparation as valuable artefacts that allude to such wider networks of bodily care. As some of the authors demonstrate, having one’s hair ‘done’ can signal wealth or ritual preparation (see Aldhouse-Green’s discussion of such a scene on the Gundestrup cauldron, 2004, 315, fig. 11), as can the assumption of another’s hair to create a stylised or exotic appearance through hair-pieces or wigs. Our hair can be a proxy for well-being or illness, and people can be shamed or de-humanised by shaving. Yet ideas about what hair to remove and how, are often culturally idiosyncratic and can simply be a response to heat or infestation, as other articles indicate. Meanwhile, the tearing of our own hair, or its radical loss, can also signal intense distress or trauma. As other authors go on to discuss, hair is an integral yet partible part of personhood: keepsake of a child’s first cut; love token; relic, even trophy.

Iron Age bog bodies evidence many of the above phenomena. The decapitated head of Osterby man (Germany) is the perfect embodiment of an impressive Iron Age hair-style: glowing strands, stained red by the peat, are coiled to the front right-hand side of his temple, in a ‘Suebian’ knot – a hairstyle described by the contemporary classical author Tacitus in the Germania. Dätgen man (also from Germany) has a similar knot tied at the rear of the skull and Tacitus interprets these hairstyles as being ‘designed to impress the foe they meet in battle’ (cited in Aldhouse-Green 2004, 302). We know that while the Gauls ‘limed’ their hair to lighten and stiffen it (Diodorus Siculus The Library of Histories v.28.1) some of the Batavians dyed theirs red (see Aldhouse-Greeen 2004, 299; Tacitus, The Histories IV, 61). In contrast, the hair of Clonycavan man (Ireland) is shaved at the front and then piled high, set with imported resin (Kelly 2013, 234-5). Lindow man’s beard meanwhile was freshly clipped a day or so before his death (Joy 2009). Why lavish attention on the body of an individual destined to die? It is this intimate insight into pre-mortem hair care that suggests the above examples were not simply low-status victims or reviled enemies but someone whose preparation for death mattered. Through shaving, clipping or shearing, plaiting, waxing and setting, these men were made beautiful in the hours before their death, suggesting both foreknowledge and acquiescence to the extraordinary violence that then followed in each case. In Robb’s description of Huron trials of pain meted out to captured and doomed Iroquois, many of these facets of care can be seen (2008): a final evening in which the fated warrior was celebrated, dressed and mourned by the women of the opposing tribe who – the very next day – would contribute to his torture in a final test of his courage, magnifying the triumph embodied in his capture and killing. Some of these individuals may therefore have been respected enemy captives – leaders or warriors. Yet an alternative understanding of this preparation is also possible: that as an example of sanctioned violence, these men were adorned in honour of imminent acts of self-sacrifice (Giles 2009; 2015) perhaps representing failed kingship that had to yield before the inauguration of a new king (Kelly 2013).

Meanwhile, Huldremose woman (Denmark) had her hair cut off, and placed alongside her body, one strand wound around her throat as if in symbolic strangulation (van der Sanden 1996, 164). In two other examples from Germany, the hair of the Yde girl was severed and placed alongside her corpse, while the scalp of Windeby I appears to have been closely shaved. Both of these latter bog bodies were originally interpreted as the result of acts of public shaming – drawing again on Tacitus’ account of the humiliation and expulsion of female adulterers among the Germanic tribes (Glob 1969). Yet Windeby I has now been re-identified as male, and Gill-Robinson (2007) has suggested that the ‘shaving’ of his hair may be the result of over-vigorous cleaning during excavation or conservation. This latter example provides a salient insight into how the sensuous qualities of hair are often swiftly elided with sexual promiscuity, particularly in women. In contrast, in other bogs in Denmark and the Netherlands, cut plaits of hair have been interpreted as honourable offerings (van der Sanden 1996, 219). Whatever our explanation, the dramatic severing or removal of hair clearly has the power to shock, impress and move us in both the past and present.

As other authors in this collection insist, we need to pay further attention to hair coverings or fastenings, and shapely head-gear (nets, hats, helmets, crowns etc.) as part of the material culture that controlled or framed hair. The elegant swan’s neck, wheel-headed pin from Danes Graves for example (Giles 2013), was found behind a woman’s head as if pinning up a bun or coil. Bronze, glass and amber objects from the Arras culture cemeteries, normally interpreted as necklaces or ear-rings, might also be hair ornaments (Giles 2012, 150). Even the slight mineralised trace of hair poking through the Mill Hill Deal ‘crown’ (Parfitt 1995) helps to shed light on female and male hair-styles and their ‘framing’ through later prehistoric objects, in communities where we lack preservation of hair itself. Likewise, the presence of two early Bronze Age gold ‘ear-rings’ at the foot of the Amesbury Archer – now re-interpreted as hair locks – suggests the placing at his feet of substantial hanks or plaits of hair, adorned with these shining clasps of gold (Fitzpatrick 2013). While examples of post-mortem hair cutting are evidenced in both archaeology and anthropology (Aldhouse-Green 2004, 304) such tresses could also be gifts from partners or comrades: part of how they signalled their entry into mourning (Aldhouse-Green 2004, 300). This example chimes with the discovery of ‘eyebrow’ hair alongside a razor under the round barrow of Winterslow G3 (cited in Barrett 1994, 123), apparently shaved off then deposited as part of the bereaved’s purification rite or farewell to the dead. The regrowth of hair is thus an ideal way in which individuals might publicly signal periods of mourning to a wider community. Finally, as the articles on medieval hair within this issue demonstrate, severe hair cuts such as the tonsure can indicate ‘novice’ or ‘new recruit’ status, or even withdrawal into worlds of wider abstinence and sacrality (see also Aldhouse-Green 2004, 302).

And if we are thinking critically about human hair in a new way, perhaps we need also to think about its analogy with other hairy substances; the filaments, bristles, spines and feathers of the animal world that might be considered analogous to human hair. The potential to use animal fur or hair decoratively in later prehistory is illustrated by the moving discovery of a delicate cattle-hair and tin-bead braided bracelet from Whitehorse Hill Cairn (Jones 2016): perhaps combining two major symbols of power (ore from the earth and wealth on the hoof) in an intimate personal possession. Diodorus Siculus notes that the abovementioned liming of hair among the Gauls meant that ‘it differs in no way from a horses’ mane’ (cited in Aldhouse-Green 2004, 305) and perhaps that was part of the point – to create a somatic and symbolic link with the flowing hair of an animal saturated with both spiritual and practical importance for Iron Age communities. Aldhouse-Green goes on to draw attention to the ways in which images of boars with bristles raised in aggression are associated in the Iron Age world with male bodies on both sculpture and coinage (2004, 310-11). Reinforcing this insight, the boar from Ashmanhaugh (Norfolk) has recently been interpreted as a possible helmet crest (Findlay and McKenzie 2015). Its pierced, ridged spine might well have been designed to actually take threaded boar hair, creating an amalgam of bronze and hair that literally bristled with intimidation (like the Anglo-Saxon helmet crest from Benty Grange, Peak District, currently on display in the Weston Park Museum, Sheffield). Notably, a recent Coolus-style helmet from an Iron Age weapons burial in North Bersted (West Sussex) was found with two massive Celtic open-work plaques that have been reconstructed as a hinging to form a crest running left-to-right across the helmet ridge, with the second plaque running front-to-back down across the neck guard (Feugère et al. 2014). Such crests might be designed to mimic the qualities of a bird such as the indigenous Great Crested Grebe, renowned for its coppery breeding-season plumage, which is inflated into side ruffs and head crests during both courtship ‘dances’, greetings and fights over rival nesting grounds (RSPB 2016). (Interestingly, an unprovenanced late Iron Age/early Roman bronze figurine with ridged head crest and plumage, held at the Manchester Museum, has been interpreted as a possible grebe: accession number 1963.86.) Britain nearly hunted its grebe population to extinction in the 19th century, in pursuance of feathers for millinery. Fascinatingly then, the specialist who analysed the North Bersted helmet plaques noted that the external groove on the riveted outer rims of these plaques ‘may have contained organic ornament, perhaps hair, or feathers’ (Feugère 2014, 121).

In conclusion, the articles in this special issue will not just beget other archaeological studies of human hair but hopefully wider research into non-human hair, fur and plumage – but that, as they say, is another story.


My thanks to the editor of this themed issue, Dr Steve Ashby, and the Editor of Internet Archaeology, Judith Winters, for their invitation to contribute the ‘Afterword’ to this collection. Many thanks to Miranda Aldhouse-Green for her stimulating and much more wide-ranging study on this topic; to Dr Julia Farley of the British Museum and Bryan Sitch of the Manchester Museum, for their exciting discussions on Iron Age animal hair symbolism; and to Ole Nielsen, Director of the Silkeborg Museum, for his very generous tour of the new Tollund Man exhibition and inspiring discussion of Iron Age hair. All errors and omissions remain the responsibility of the author.


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We would like to thank Internet Archaeology’s editor, Judith Winters, and the anonymous reviewers, whose comments and assistance have made the texts included herein immeasurably stronger, more coherent as a group, and more engaging as a resource than would have been possible in a traditional publication venue. It has been possible to make the collection Open Access through a grant from the Department of Archaeology.