Amazing Artefacts: Hairpins

Andrew Lane

Roman women are often depicted with elaborate hairstyles. A marble bust from the Louvre shows a woman with curled hair raised high over her forehead and arranged in braided coils behind. At the end of the first century AD this was the very epitome of Roman fashion. But just as today, hairstyles in the Roman world also changed over time. They could be used to suggest your place in society or to distinguish you from your predecessors. Hairstyles also provide a useful dating tool for archaeologists.  

A white roman marble face of a woman with large elaborate hair fashioned like a round headband. She has a strong nose and lips and outlines for eyes and ears.
Roman marble portrait of a lady (Louvre Museum) ©Andrew Lane

Ovid, the Roman author, provides an insight into their creation. Heated iron curling tongs and coloured dyes were often employed, and the consequences for an unsuccessful hairdresser extended far beyond the loss of a tip (Love Affairs 1.14.1-18, 27, 28, 43-46). Only the wealthy had the time and resources required to create these elaborate coiffures

And the antithesis of a carefully crafted head of hair – perhaps something like the style sported by Queen Boudica. Only one ancient description of the British Queen survives. Cassius Dio describes Boudica as “very tall” and “in appearance most terrifying, a great mass of tawniest hair fell to her hips”(LX11 2.2). Written more than a century after her death this description is probably based on a “stock” image of an enemy of Rome, rather than reality. A long tradition existed of depicting those opposing Rome with long, unkempt hair, in stark contrast to the carefully nurtured coiffures of the Roman elite.  

Essential to maintaining these elaborate hairstyles was the humble hairpin. Examples made of glass, metal and bone were found during the excavation of London’s Roman Amphitheatre. The most elaborate of these was a bone example, with a finial decorated with the head of Minerva. Crafted in the round the goddess of war, and of music, poetry, wisdom, commerce, weaving and the crafts is shown wearing a crested helmet.

A long brown bone hair pin detailed with the face of a woman. She is wearing a three pronged hat and her eye brows, nose and mouth are visible. The rest of the pin is carved in geometric shapes. o
Bone hairpin decorated with the head of Minerva (detail) found at London’s Roman Amphitheatre ©MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology).

Hairpins, perhaps not surprisingly, are rarely shown on marble portraits. Difficult to sculpt in the round – they do, however, appear in other art forms. This includes a rare group of portraits, on wood, that once adorned the front of mummies in Roman Egypt. Painted in encaustic or wax, the pictured example shows an elegant lady wearing fine jewellery with an elaborate hairstyle secured with a gold hairpin.

A detailed portrait of a woman woman on a round slap of wood. She is fair skinned with black hair, large round eyes and is wearing a purple tunic. In addition to her gold necklaces and earrings a small gold pin can be seen sitting in the top of her hair.
Portrait of a women in encaustic on limewood (Roman 100-120, found in Egypt) ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

At the opposite end of the Roman empire, in London, the hairpins found during the excavation of the amphitheatre may also have been worn by elite Roman ladies. Finds like this, together with items of jewellery suggest that the audience at the games was mixed – male and female. Seeing the excitement generated at Wembley stadium during the European football championships, it’s easy to see how things may have been lost in the heat of the moment two thousand years ago!  

A watercolour impression of London's Roman Amphitheatre depicting the large round structure with stacked seating and a flat stage in the centre. It is filled wit people and animals which can be seen both inside and outside the stadium.
Artists impression of London’s Roman Amphitheatre as in may have appeared c. AD 130 (Judith Dobbie) ©MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology

If you would like to know a little more about Roman Hairpins then please enjoy the short video below.