I love this article – because I’m a firm believer in the fact that historians need help when interpreting documents and artefacts.
Janet Stephens is an amateur historians, or a ‘hairdo archaeologist’ as she calls it. A Baltimore hairdresser, she’s has proposed a new theory that the elaborate Roman hairstyles were not wigs (as previously believed) but actual hairstyles achieved by ‘sewing’ braids together.
“Her coiffure queries began, she says, when she was killing time in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore back in 2001. A bust of the Roman empress Julia Domna caught her eye. “I thought, holy cow, that is so cool,”
“In 2005, she had a breakthrough. Studying translations of Roman literature, Ms. Stephens says, she realized the Latin term “acus” was probably being misunderstood in the context of hairdressing. Acus has several meanings including a “single-prong hairpin” or “needle and thread,” she says. Translators generally went with “hairpin.”
“The single-prong pins couldn’t have held the intricate styles in place. But a needle and thread could. It backed up her hair hypothesis.”
She actually sent in her findings to the Journal of Roman Archaeology and they were published. The article was published in 2008 under the title: “Ancient Roman Hairdressing: On (Hair)Pins and Needles.” Her YouTube page has tutorials for how to achieve some of the hairstyles found on famous statues: Janet Stephens YouTube
I find this a good example of how historians can benefit from people who are experts in other fields. Historians have to study a lot of different areas (basically everything that happened in the past, starting from 1 second ago – that’s a lot of material!) and I really found it interesting here what an amateur historian contributed. The quote in the article by Marden Nichols, curator of ancient art at the Walters Art Museum, summed this up well:
“Like many classicists, I spend my days analyzing works of literature and art that relate to activities I have never performed: harvesting crops, building temples, sacrificing animals,” she says. Ms. Stephens can “draw upon practical experiences.”