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Persephone Pioneers: Janet Stephens, Hair Archaeologist

Janet Stephens is a real-life Indiana Jones: by day, she’s a hairdresser, but by night, she’s a hair archaeologist. Her interest isn’t just casual: she’s been published  in academic journals, she presents regularly at conferences, and she is the first person to take studying and recreating ancient hairstyles seriously. Welcome, Janet Stephens!

How did you become interested in recreating ancient hair styles?

I became interested in recreating ancient hairstyles during a visit to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD. I had never seen ancient hairstyles from the back before. I became fascinated by what I saw and determined to find out how they were done.

When you first told me about your avocation, you mentioned that you are really the first person to take studying the creation of ancient hair styles seriously. How do you think the fact that hair styles are generally created for and by women allowed this subject to be so infrequently studied?

This is a complex question, and is fraught with opportunities to offend somebody or other, but here goes! I think there are several reasons why no one seriously studied ancient hairstyle recreation before me. First, there has always been a division between those who work with their hands for a living and those who “think” for a living. The people with the hair skills never pursued the scholarship, and those with the scholarly chops never learned the hair. Misconceptions eventually became “fact”: respect for scholarly precedent and ignorance of technical subjects assured that these misconceptions were propagated without question, especially when a primary literary source, however technically weak, could be cited as proof. Add to this a gender component: a persistently male perspective (often patronizing and dismissive), permeates all scholarship on ancient beauty topics before the birth of women’s studies departments. But even so, much scholarship by women continues to focus primarily on the issues and interests of the elite Roman females receiving the hairstyles or on questions of identification via the hairstyle, rather than the hairstyles themselves or the servants who created them. Unconscious anachronism continues to be a huge problem: scholars take their own hair experiences as the norm and frequently assume that ancient peoples did their hair the way moderns do.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about ancient hair styles since you started this project?

The most surprising thing I learned about ancient hair styles is how easy they are to arrange once you give up trying to use modern tools.

How has your experience as a modern hair stylist helped you understand ancient hairstyles?

I could never have done this project if I hadn’t been a professional hairdresser. I have had to use everything I know, from hair biology, histology, and chemistry to braiding, cutting, curling, and styling techniques, all the while forgetting every piece of modern technology I rely on, like electricity, shampoo, scissors, plastic, hair elastics, brushes and bobby pins.

What has been your favorite hair style to recreate?

I enjoy the challenges of all the hairstyles, but I have a particular affection for the hairstyles of empress Julia Domna (ca 174?-217), since her style was the catalyst for my research.

In watching your videos, I was struck by how often changes in style over time indicate changes in lifestyle (for example, having children) and health. What does recreating hair styles tell us about day-to-day life and health in ancient Rome?

To a large extent, hairstyles were indicators of status, wealth and leisure in ancient Rome, but it is difficult to draw general conclusions about ancient women’s health and day to day lives as a group from the information gleaned from individual portraits. Most portraits exist in single unique exemplars: each is a snapshot of an individual woman at a unique time in her life. We have precious few details about any individual roman woman’s life, except for those belonging to various imperial families, and always from a male perspective. As for the visual record, some (but not all) imperial women had serial portraits made over the course of their lives, and these can be compared and studied. But conclusions drawn from these series cannot be considered normative for imperial Roman women as a class, let alone for ancient Roman women in general. Some Roman women may have enjoyed passing their time being groomed, others may have considered it pure drudgery. Ancient medical writers and encyclopedists such as Galen, Soranus, and Pliny the Elder are better sources for information on the health concerns of ancient peoples than are portraits.

How might understanding ancient hair styles help us understand what modern hair styles represent? For example, everyone freaked out when Michelle Obama got bangs — did similar things happen to the women you study?

There is no way of knowing how ancient women responded to hairstyle innovation by imperial women; there are no written records of their opinions, we receive direct knowledge of the ancient world from a narrow and exclusively male literary perspective. The archaeological record demonstrates that some hairstyles were more popular than others, but it is hard to tell whether an empress started a new style or whether she was simply wearing an established style. Since coins of imperial women can be reliably dated, they are usually credited with more influence than they may actually have had. Nor can we, in our modern, media-saturated culture, comprehend the influence that the image on a worn coin, or the hairstyle on a new statue may have exerted on the hairstyle choices of ancient women, either individually or as a group.

A lot of the videos you have focus on women of elite status. What do we know about the hairdos of everyday ancient women?

The elite women get the last word on this. They had the money to have their portraits made, so their images survive. “Everyday” women, for whom almost no visual records survive, might have worn elaborate styles, or they may have worn simple styles that they could dress themselves, such as braided and coiled buns, knotted (literally) styles and styles that required only a ribbon or a hair stick for their arrangement. There are a few surviving sculptural images of servant women, and working women; they are portrayed wearing coiled buns. Down styles were not common, except as a sign of mourning.

What’s next for your research?

I am very busy with requests for presentations right now. I will be a touring speaker for the Archaeological Institute of America for 2014/15. In my spare time I am working on a book as well as filming and editing more videos.

For more on Janet Stephens, check our her YouTube channel.

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[E] Sally Lawton

My food groups are cheese, bacon, and hot tea. I like studying cities and playing with my cat, Buffy.

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