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Blog: An Independent Scholar Reconstructing the Hairstyles of Antiquity

Portrait of an elderly Roman matron (40-20 BCE, Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, CC0 License).

I am a professional hairdresser with a BA degree in Drama. My only other significant job experience was a brief career in Academic Computer Database Administration in the 1980s, managing the Dartmouth Dante Project. I have no formal training in Archaeology or Classics, except for my dismal performance in high school Latin — but somehow this didn’t prevent me from becoming the authority on technical recreation of ancient Roman hairstyles.

I am a textbook case of doing things backwards: my topic found me. A chance encounter with a statue of Julia Domna at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore where I live, set me on the path of scholarship. The Walters had set this portrait out in the middle of the room where I could see the back of her head. At first I saw just a pretty updo I could sell to brides. But I failed completely when I tried to recreate it using modern, U-shaped wire hairpins. As I searched for information about how these styles were constructed, I found my professional hairdressing expertise at odds with canonical explanations of ancient Roman hairstyles—they all agreed that they were impossible without wigs and false hair.

My background as an avid recreational needlewoman sparked my intuition, and experimentation was the natural next step. I was recreating Roman hairstyles long before I tracked down evidence supporting my hypothesis that these styles were sewn together with needle and thread. I began my research expecting to find an explanation by somebody else: essentially trying to prove myself wrong, or at least unoriginal. The learning curve is particularly steep when you don’t know what you don’t know.

First I had to develop visual literacy in Roman Hairstyles: Fittschen and Zanker’s Catalog of Roman portraits in the Capitoline Museums[1] was indispensable: I practically wore it out. Its four-view format let me see the profile and back of each portrait, which is where hairdressing happens. Most museum displays and published materials emphasize the frontal view, even cropping the tops of the hairstyles.


Roman, Portrait of Julia Domna front view, ca. 200 CE. Marble. The Walters Museum, 23.210. CC0 1.0.
Roman, Portrait of Julia Domna front view, ca. 200 CE.
Marble. The Walters Museum, 23.210. CC0 1.0.

I live by the principle “Smile and ask for help.” The Walters Art Museum Library and curators Joaneath Spicer and Sabina Albersmeier made my work pleasurable. They showered me with curatorial photographs, showed me objects in storage, and let me photograph in their collection. And luckily, I am married to a Johns Hopkins University Professor, so I get library privileges as long as he is employed there.  Through him I became acquainted with the Classics professors Alan Shapiro and Matthew Roller, who were very encouraging and helpful. 

Between 2001 and 2008, when I published my findings in the Journal of Roman Archaeology, I did what you all do: I read a lot, tracked down citations and consulted primary source material. During those years, online resources for humanities research were hard to access or not yet available. Today, online databases make search and retrieval much easier but (and by no means do I want to sound ungrateful) they continue to throw up barriers, both structural and conceptual, to interested non-specialists like me. Context searching is particularly painful, so I’ll illustrate my challenges with examples from two databases I use most frequently.


Roman, Portrait of Julia Domna back view, ca. 200 CE. Marble. The Walters Museum, 23.210. CC0 1.0.
Roman, Portrait of Julia Domna back view, ca. 200 CE.
Marble. The Walters Museum, 23.210. CC0 1.0.

Packard Humanities Institute Latin Texts is a chainsaw. I love this database. It is freely accessible and allows sophisticated, efficiently-displayed context searches using word fragments. It only lists hits occurring within 100 characters of each another, assuring relevance. But there are no English translations: I don’t know Latin, so I must cross check each PHI hit with the online Loeb Classical Library.

As you know, Loeb is the mother lode for both Latin and Greek sources and, crucial for me, English translations. But their context searching is frankly awful. Loeb doesn’t allow word fragments, and it doesn’t limit the distance between hits of multiple search words. This leads to reams of false positives that must be checked by clicking individually, e.g., the dreaded “Sorry, results for your search do not appear on any facing pages” comprised 112 out of 141 hits.

But even when your search words do appear on the same page they aren’t necessarily in the same sentence or paragraph. When you multiply the potential for false hits by the many combinations of English word variants popular with translators (such as “hair, tress, strands, mane, locks” or “arrange, dress, braid, comb, coil, wind, coif, curl, curls, curled, curly,” etc.), many hours can pass without significant progress. But it certainly beats sitting all day in a library sub-basement skimming print books page by page, because Loeb indices predilect proper and place names.

Access to online Loeb Classical Library is gated, requiring access to a subscribing library or a hefty pay wall. In the JHU system, one must have an active university ID and password. For individuals, it costs $150 for the first year and $65 for consecutive years afterward. And it is difficult to find the online Loeb unless you already know its name, because of network search algorithms.

On the cheery side though, non-English secondary literature is now much less of a challenge because of Google Translate. I discovered by accident that I can simply cut and paste text from good quality PDFs and online journals into Google Translate, then cut and paste the translation into a word file for later correction and study.  But with photocopies, many scans and poor quality digitized books, I use brute force and just type it into the Google Translate box.  This limits me to the Latin alphabet, but it’s unlocked a world of information I would never otherwise have been able to access.

You might say that I should just buckle down and learn Greek, but I don’t have the time because I earn my living dressing hair. Hairdressing is physically taxing and year-round so for me research and publication is a marathon not a sprint.  I am fortunate that my days off are real days off. Unlike a full-time teacher, preparing lessons and correcting assignments outside of school, when I’m at home my shears are at the salon and no one can make me cut hair. But even so, days off can slip away without self- discipline. I save my best time for me: the morning. I get up an hour or two early to read or write before going to the Salon. At work, I try to put research out of my mind. By the weekend I can see better the defects in my prose of the weekend before. I pay someone else to clean my house. The stress and guilt-reduction is so worth it. And most importantly, I don’t piss off my employers: I give a 100% in the salon, and if I’m asked to give a lecture, I schedule it on my days off or add extra hours so I don’t inconvenience my clients.

Publication of books and articles is what we do for the “profession,” but producing videos is what I do for me. It’s something I can work on in small-time gaps and waiting rooms, and it lets me indulge my theatrical side! YouTube may not be for everyone, but it’s been great for me, given the visual nature of my work. I try to keep up standards by including bibliography slides, source labels and credits. When I’ve done poster sessions at the AIA annual conference, I post a more expansive video on my poster topic on my YouTube channel. It was the supplemental video I did for my Vestal Virgin poster which got me noticed by the Wall Street Journal and ultimately invited to conferences.

If video production is an avenue you want to explore, I encourage you to do so. YouTube lets you record and edit videos directly to your channel, it has copyright free music tracks, and lots of other services. With them you don’t need to invest in cameras, lighting and other equipment. However, I prefer uploading to YouTube from IMovie. This is because I prefer to use multiple small video cameras to record myself dressing hair from different angles simultaneously. This lets me do fewer takes and I can use the footage showing the best angle. IMovie permits special effects like green screening (replacing the green background with something more appealing), side by side shots, fades, transitions, color correction, and other useful tools. I have a small video studio in my basement with a homemade green screen, photography backdrop paper, and some inexpensive video lighting. 

I highly recommend taking a basic videography course so you don’t repeat mistakes I made on my first, very primitive videos. Sound quality is the hardest thing to get right in video, so I purposely avoid talking directly to the camera. Because my hands are working I don’t have time or patience to do repeated takes for flubbed lines. When performing my voiceover recordings, I don’t use the built-in microphone on my laptop, the sound is tinny and it picks up ambient noise. Instead I invested in a Yeti tabletop microphone and a pop filter. The microphone can be adjusted to focus only on my voice, and the pop filter softens percussive consonants.

These are just a few reflections and thoughts about my journey as an independent scholar and reconstructive archaeologist. Let’s face it, as independent scholars, no one is forcing us to do this. Fame is uncertain and money is a nonstarter, so do it because it’s in you and it’s got to get out. You might be surprised where you end up.


[1] Katalog der römischen Porträts in den Capitolinischen Museen und den anderen kommunalen Sammlungen der Stadt Rom 11

Header Image: Portrait of an elderly Roman matron (40-20 BCE, Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, CC0 License).

 

Janet Stephens's picture

Janet Stephens, a self-trained experimental archaeologist, grew up in Kennewick, Washington, and Columbus, Ohio. A graduate of Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington, with a BA in Dramatic Art, Janet is a Senior Cosmetologist and educator working at Studio 921 Salon in Baltimore, Maryland. Janet’s interest in recreating ancient Roman hairstyles began with a chance visit to the Walters Art Museum in 2001; she is now the recognized authority on the topic. Janet presents her research at universities, museums and archaeology conferences, was a 2012 American Academy in Rome Prize finalist and American Institute of Archaeology travelling lecturer in 2014-5 and 2016-17. She is published in the Journal of Roman Archaeology and EXARC, the journal of experimental archaology, and is a contributing author to the Berg Cultural History of Hair (forthcoming 2018). Janet has a popular YouTube channel devoted to historical hairdressing from antiquity through the 19th century. Her research has been featured in the New Yorker Magazine, Wall Street Journal, BBC and National Public Radio.

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