Archaeologies of Hair: an introduction

Steven P. AshbyORCID logo

Department of Archaeology, King's Manor, University of York, YO1 7EP, UK.

Cite this as: Ashby, S.P. 2016 Archaeologies of Hair: an introduction, 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
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
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.

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