Afterword: Strands of Evidence in Later Prehistory

Melanie GilesORCID logo

Archaeology, School of Arts, Languages and Cultures, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester. M13 9PL, UK.

Cite this 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)
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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