Janet Stephens: Intrepid Hairdressing Archaeologist

Some time ago, I was wandering around the Internet nerding out over old things as is my wont when I came across the YouTube channel of a genius. Before my astounded eyes, professional hairstylist Janet Stephens recreated the hugely intricate hairstyle of Empress Julia Domna (170–217 A.D.), wife of Emperor Septimius Severus, using only period-appropriate tools and a sculpted bust of the empress as an example. No pins. No perms. No hairspray. Behold Janet’s amazing skills in action:


Naturally I watched the rest of her videos in quick succession. Then I secured a copy of “Ancient Roman Hairdressing: On (hair) pins and needles,” a paper she wrote that was published in the 2008 edition of the Journal of Roman Archaeology (JRA). The depth of her knowledge blew me away. She is fully conversant in the archaeology (including unpublished artifacts), ancient literary sources and published scholarship of Roman hairstyling, and not just Roman but Etruscan and Greek as well.

Her work in this field is unique because her experience as a stylist gives her particular insight into how hair works and what can be accomplished with what tools. She upends a number of assumptions — that Roman women must have used wigs to achieve their more elaborate hairstyles, that they used hairpins — and injects a whole new simplicity and accuracy to the very vocabulary of ancient hairdressing.

Virtually all commentators demonstrate modern technological biases that lead to anachronistic speculation: in both looking at images and interpreting literary passages, they assume that the Romans used the same hairdressing technologies as do moderns. In addition, not being hairdressers, they fail to understand the technical possibilities of the tools that the Romans did have at their disposal. I will analyze the physical capabilities of the single prong hair-pin in order to show the impossibility of its application in many contexts. As an alternative I will propose sewing needles, arguing that, as Roman women of the 1st c. A.D. abandoned vitta-based [(vittae were linen or woollen ribbons used to tie the hair together when arranging it)] coiffures in favor of more elaborate fashions, they used needles (artifacts well attested in antiquity) invisibly to stitch together the style’s various components.

And that’s just the second paragraph. The rest of the paper lives up to its promise and then some.

Her most recent video, Julia Domna: Forensic Hairdressing, a recreation of a later hairstyle of the hirsute empress, was presented to great acclaim at the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia earlier this month.

(Correction: I initially wrote she had done the recreations live, but that was my misunderstanding. In fact, Janet’s Julia Domna videos were running on a computer while four pre-styled mannikin heads, one at each stage of Julia’s hair loss as portrayed on coins, provided real-hair examples for the people attending to examine. A 4×8 foot graphic illustrated the probable progression of hair loss from one stage to another.)

Shocked and awed by her combination of scholarly research and styling craftsmanship, and cat-killingly curious about how all the elements came together, I asked Janet Stephens if she would submit to an interview and she has most graciously done so.

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Janet StephensQ: How did you first begin to research ancient hairdressing?
My research began with a visit to the Walters Art Museum in 2001. They had just finished renovating the Greek/Roman collections and displayed a number of portrait busts at eye level, out in the center of the room, like a cocktail party. I had never seen the back of a roman portrait before—they are usually placed high on shelves/pedestal with the backs tight up against a wall. As I circled the portraits I saw the logic of the hairstyles and determined to try some at home. It was electrifying, can’t thank the Walters enough.

Q: When was the first time you tried to recreate a look and how successful was that initial foray?
I think it was my first day off after that visit! I pulled out a long haired mannikin to try out Julia Domna, type 2. I made it as far as the serpentine bun and hit a wall. Bobby pins and hair pins just wouldn’t do the job. It was all library leg work and practical experimentation after that.

Q: Which came first: your love of history or your love of hair?
My love of hair definitely came first (as a child I had the best coiffed dolls in the neighborhood), and my love of hair kindled my love of fashion and social history.

Q: Your article in the JRA demonstrates an astonishingly thorough command of the archaeological record, and of primary and secondary sources relating to Roman hairstyling (and not just Roman, but also Etruscan and Greek). How did you master such a density of material?
Lots and lots of reading, poring over exhibition catalogs, back searching the footnotes to the reading and reading some more! It helped that I am fluent in Italian and, in 2006, I took a German for reading class. Working in my spare time, the research took 6 years.

Q: Did you do all this research on your own or through a school or other institution or …?
I am an independent researcher, but my husband is a professor of Italian at the Johns Hopkins University, so I have library privileges there. We are friendly with colleagues in the Classics/Archaeology department and at the Walters Art Museum. They were kind enough to send me articles and clippings, read drafts and help with some picky Latin, though I try not to impose.

Q: You say in the JRA article that sculptures tell you where to part the hair, what direction to twist it in, even whether the curl is natural or artificial. I’m particularly curious about the latter. How you can identify the source of the curl?
It helps to have a lot of hairdressing experience! This is a complex topic with room for much ambiguity. Identifying artificial curl on a statue requires a visual literacy similar to that necessary to distinguish a particular painter’s work by his brush strokes. It can be difficult to identify artificial curl today because of the vast array of hair care technologies available.

The Romans did not have the range of technologies that we do (electric dryers, plastics, cheap metal clips, air conditioning, hair spray), so changing the shape of hair was both risky (irons heated over fire) or time consuming (air drying wet hair so it takes on an unnatural shape can take many hours). How long these artificial curls might endure depended on climate and weather. I believe most Roman women made do with their natural curl patterns and avoided artificial curling.

But on Roman portraits, curls that are too neat, ribbon-like, evenly sized and orderly may be suspected as artificial. I always examine the entire hairstyle, looking for signs of wave or straightness. I look for signs in hairstyle components where curl would be irrelevant or counterproductive to the finished style, and I pay special attention to mismatches between one zone of the head and another. Artificial curls are arranged in strict rows or stacks, with a logic and consistency to their rotational direction, say clockwise on one side of the head and counterclockwise on the other. Natural curl tends to be chaotic and “frizzy”, there is usually a mix of different diameters of curl and they don’t always rotate in the same directions.

Q: Were you already an accomplished stylist by then?
Yes. I now have over 20 years professional hairdressing experience. I have also taught in an accredited beauty school and as a color educator for a major haircare company.

Q: Did you have to do a lot of trial and error to figure out how certain hairstyles were achieved?
Not really, once I realized they could be sewn together, the styles came together fairly quickly. Using high quality portrait examples is a must, though.

Sabina, wife of Hadrian, as Venus Genetrix, ca. 117, Museo OstienseQ: Which ones were the most challenging and why?
The ones I do on mannikins are the hardest, because I have only my two hands to work with. A live model can follow directions or help out by holding on to a piece of equipment or hair. But in terms of sheer manual dexterity, the “beehive” (ca. 117 A.D.) is the toughest so far.

Q: I was surprised by how much hard science — like the isometric tension keeping bodkins in place and the anatomical requirements of hair length for any given style — was in your JRA paper. Are these factors you can calculate by observation or did you have to learn them by experimenting?
Hairdressers learn a lot of biology and anatomy during cosmetology training and we apply it every day in the salon. We all learn that certain hair lengths work better for certain styles. I prefer using vertebrae to measure hair length because it is precise but not dogmatic. I have used bodkins to dress my own hair and I use them to manage the long hair of clients. You become familiar with how they work and it just becomes a matter of finding ways to describe them.

Q: How did you find those unpublished needles in the Johns Hopkins collection?
The Johns Hopkins University has a very good archaeological collection and museum. Their gracious former curator, Eunice Maguire, helped me with the needles. There is a lot of unpublished material out there.

Q: How was your “Julia Domna: Forensic Hairdressing” presentation received at the Archaeological Institute of America Conference this year?
It seemed to create a a lot of buzz and people said they enjoyed it. It’s not every conference where you go to the poster session and see “heads on pikestaffs”!

Q: Is there anyone else doing anything like what you do?
Dr. Elizabeth Bartman (president of the AIA) and Prof. Katherine Schwab of Fairfield University have each employed hairdressers to recreate the hairstyle of Faustina the Elder and the ancient Greek Erechtheion caryatid hairstyles, respectively. But, so far as I know, I am the only professional hairdresser working as a scholar in her own right on the topic of ancient hairstyle recreation.

Q: Do you have any specific goals, attitudes you’d like to change or new approaches you’d like to establish in the archaeological community?
I would love it if all archaeological museums would display their sculptures out in the middle of the room instead of in niches and against walls! And I wish there were mirrors behind every small sculpture displayed in a case.

Q: For instance, creating consistent terminology (i.e., bodkins and needles instead of curlers/hairpins/bobby pins) standards in the scholarly literature?
That’s a great idea…and I would extend the concept to include technologically neutral descriptions of hair itself.

Q: If you could choose one ancient hairstyle or technique to bring back into fashion today, which one would it be and why?
Selfishly, I would love to see more women of every age wearing their hair as long as they can: that way I could find hair models more easily!

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Inspiring, isn’t she? Not only is Janet Stephens an expert in her profession, but in just six years she taught herself to be an expert in the academic field of ancient hairdressing, maybe even the primary expert. Now run, don’t walk, to watch all of her videos and clamor for more.

Million dollar schoolgirl embroidery

Silk on linen sampler by Mary Antrim, 1807A silk on linen needlework sampler stitched by 12-year-old Mary Antrim in 1807 sold at Sotheby’s Important Americana sale in New York on Sunday for $1,070,500 (including buyer’s premium). That’s ten times more than its pre-sale estimate of $80,000-$120,000.

Girls at that time (and from the 17th century through to the 20th) were taught needlework from a very young age, both in school and at home. They proved their skill, virtue and industry by creating samplers. Early samplers had a utilitarian aspect, teaching girls schoolwork as they stitched things like letters of the alphabet, maps and mathematical tables, but by the 18th century the focus had shifted to a more pictorial approach. Mary’s elaborate design of farm life, featuring symmetrical vignettes of trees, animals, houses, fruit bowls and an elegant lady riding side-saddle is an exquisite example of pictorial needlework. She was the daughter of weaver John Antrim, so she came by her extraordinary skills honestly.

The piece was one of 198 lots from the collection of needlework historian Betty Ring who wrote the definite reference books on the subject and pretty much single-handedly elevated the entire field of folk art needlework with her scholarship and her collecting. Sotheby’s has put her seminal books on the subject, Girlhood Embroidery Volume I, Volume II and American Needlework Treasures online. They are so rich with illustrations even just paging through them is a beautiful voyage of exploration.

Embroidered and painted silk mourning picture by Betsey Clarke, Miss Patten's School, Hartford, CT, ca. 1809The sale of the Ring collection totaled $4,389,503, over a million dollars above the total estimates, which is particularly remarkable considering that a quarter of the lots didn’t sell at all. Most of the unsold pieces were memorial samplers, depicting veiled mourners, weeping willows and gravestones stitched in memory of a deceased loved one. Interestingly, when Girlhood Embroidery was first published in 1993, it was positively reviewed by The Wall Street Journal (to this day it’s the only book about American decorative arts ever reviewed by the WSJ) and that reviewer was creeped out by mourning pieces. His description of them as “eerily premonitory of Edward Gorey” is supposed to be negative, I suppose, but I think it’s a ringing endorsement. The one pictured on the right, embroidered and painted on silk by Betsey Clarke, at Miss Patten’s School, Hartford, CT, ca. 1809, is one of the ones that didn’t sell. I find it gloriously Gorey-esque.

Sotheby’s press release declares the Mary Antrim sale established a new record sale price for a needlework sampler at auction. It’s not the greatest sale price ever garnered by a young woman’s embroidery, though, so either they made a mistake or they’re defining needlework sampler in a way I don’t understand. The most expensive sampler ever sold is View of Boston Common by Hannah Otis (1732-1801), stitched around 1750. It’s a huge piece, meant for display over a chimney mantelpiece, embroidered in wool and silk on linen canvas. It was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at Sotheby’s in 1996 for a record $1,157,500.

"View of Boston Common" by Hannah Otis, ca. 1750

Its historical subject matter drove the price. It captures the Boston Common during the colonial era, complete with British flag flying over the Block House (destroyed in 1761) on the left, the actual beacon on Beacon Hill, and in the middle the Thomas Hancock house with a wealthy young man on his horse accompanied by a black groom in front of it. Thomas Hancock was the father of John Hancock, he of massive signature fame. The young man on the horse could well be John Hancock himself, and the couple on the left his mother and father.

Hannah Otis is closely linked to the American Revolution and American history in general. She was born in 1732, the daughter of Colonel James Otis and Mary Allyne Otis. Her mother was a descendant of Mayflower passenger Edward Doty. Her father was a judge and representative to the Massachusetts legislature. He was a fervent anti-royalist as was his son, James Otis, Jr., who introduced the phrase “Taxation without representation is tyranny” during the Stamp Act debates. Hannah’s older sister Mercy Otis Warren was a poet, playwright and historian who published numerous pro-Revolution writings and corresponded with the luminaries of the American Revolution like John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams.

The sampler remained in the Otis family until the 1996 sale. It had been on loan at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for over 40 years when the family decided reluctantly that they had to sell it.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston was determined to buy the needlework, which was consigned to Sotheby’s by Martha Gray Otis (b. 1943) and her brother, Samuel Allyne Otis (b. 1940), who felt they could not afford to give it to the museum. “We are happy to have the museum have it; we hated to take it away from them,” said Martha Otis after the sale. “My greatest joy, besides being out of debt, is that the Boston museum has it.”

It was estate planning that drove the Otises to sell the needlework. “We are not wealthy enough to own it and pay inheritance taxes, and now by the time we pay the capital gains tax, we are not talking about a fortune divided between the eight of us,” Martha Otis continued. “I think Hannah Otis, who struggled to support herself, taking in borders and running a shop, would be pleased to know that the monies from the sale of her needlework will give my children and my brother Sam’s children a boost when they need it.”

Voltaire letters written in England discovered in US

"Francis Voltaire" signature on letter to the British TreasuryOxford University professor and Voltaire scholar Nicholas Cronk has uncovered 14 previously unknown letters by Voltaire written during his almost-three-year exile in England. Professor Cronk, director of Oxford University’s Voltaire Foundation, found the letters while doing archival research in US libraries. Paul LeClerc, former president of the New York Public Library and a Voltaire scholar in his own right, asked Cronk to examine 11 letters by the French Enlightenment satirist they had recently purchased. Cronk found an additional two in the Morgan Library and Museum and one in the Columbia University library.

These letters shed new light on Voltaire’s time in England, confirming that he did indeed receive an impressive £200 pension from Robert Walpole’s government, a fact long debated by scholars, and underscoring Voltaire’s remarkable success at climbing the British social and literary ladder in a short period of time. He had arrived in England in 1726 a penniless poet and playwright with a knack for irritating the monarchy and aristocracy of France with his biting satire. He didn’t speak a word of English, and all he had to smooth his way was a letter of recommendation from the British ambassador to Paris. He learned fluent English in six months and was corresponding with royalty before a year had passed.

Professor Cronk said: “Voltaire spent two important but relatively undocumented years in England in his early thirties at a time when he was best known as a poet – he arrived with only a recommendation from the British Ambassador to Paris. While here, he was exposed to ideas of English writers and later took empiricism back to the Continent where it became the basis for the Enlightenment. These newly-discovered letters are therefore very interesting because they show how Voltaire’s close interaction with the English aristocracy exposed him to Enlightenment ideas and help us to piece together the nature of those interactions.”

One letter is from Voltaire to Lord Bathurst, a patron of the arts who often hosted great English thinkers at his manor, Richings, including Alexander Pope who wrote much of his translation of Homer there. In this letter Voltaire thanks Bathurst for “the freedom of your house and the many liberties I enjoyed in that fine library.” “This shows us one way in which Voltaire would have been exposed to so much of Shakespeare, Newton, Locke, Swift, Pope and others – both by reading their books in the library at Richings and perhaps even by meeting contemporary English thinkers,” Professor Cronk explained.

Shortly after his arrival, in June of 1727, King George I died and his son assumed the throne as King George II. This was a fortunate changing of the guard for Voltaire, because the new king’s wife Queen Caroline was a strong supporter of the arts with a particular love of poetry. Grabbing the social climbing bull by the horns, Voltaire published an English translation of La Henriade, his 1723 epic poem about French King Henri IV, dedicating it to Queen Caroline. The poem sold well and solidified his patronage at the highest levels of British society.

Queen Caroline was a political ally of Sir Robert Walpole and may have played a part in securing Voltaire that £200 grant. One of the most notable of the newly discovered letters was written by Voltaire to the Treasury confirming receipt of the money. He signs it “Francis Voltaire,” a unique autograph that combines an anglicized version of his first name François with his famous pseudonym.

His time in England introduced him to ideas that he would advocate for the rest of his life, including freedom of speech, religious tolerance and constitutional monarchy. After his return to France in 1729, he would praise those ideals in his Letters Concerning the English Nation, a collection of essays published first in English in 1733 and then in French a year later. The French publication caused a scandal, getting the publisher sent to the Bastille and forcing Voltaire to flee yet again.

The 14 letters have been scanned, digitized and uploaded to Oxford’s Bodleian Library’s Electronic Enlightenment website, a treasure trove of correspondence from over 6,000 writers, philosophers, and political leaders from the 17th and 18th centuries. In collaboration with Oxford’s Voltaire Foundation, Electronic Enlightenment is working on digitizing the definitive complete collection of Voltaire’s writings.

It’s subscription only, I’m sad to say, but if you have access to an institutional login, you can view the Voltaire letters here.

Italian PM returns marble head of Domitilla to Libya

Head of Flavia Domitilla returned to TripoliItalian Prime Minister Mario Monti is in Tripoli to sign a new treaty with the post-Gaddafi government, and he brought the head of a first century A.D. Roman sculpture with him to seal the deal.

The head belongs to a statue of Flavia Domitilla Minor, the daughter of the emperor Vespasian and sister of emperors Titus and Domitian. The statue was excavated from the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site of Sabratha and was on display at Sabratha’s Roman museum in 1990 when thieves broke the head off of the body and absconded with it. (Some of the news stories are saying it was stolen in the 1960s, but I think that’s just one of the AP’s trademark typos getting passed around like a game of telephone.)

It turned up last year as lot #261 of the April 14 Antiques sale at Christie’s London. I will give you one guess as to the provenance they claimed on the piece. Oh yeah. It’s our old friend the Swiss private collection. They removed the lot from their website after they got busted, but this article quotes their original lot notes: “private collection, Switzerland, circa 1975; acquired by the present owner in Switzerland in 1988.” It was still attached to its body in a Libyan museum in 1988. Such a blatant lie.

London-based Libyan archaeologist Hafed Walda saw the lot before the auction and alerted Christie’s that it was the Domitilla head stolen from the Sabratha Museum. They ignored him and sold it to an Italian buyer for £91,250 ($142,000). Archaeologist and brilliant blogger Dorothy King also tried to get Christie’s attention but they blew her off too.

My experience of Christie’s is that that’s par for the course, but just in case … I knew they couldn’t give me the buyer’s details, so I asked the head of department, Ms Georgina Aitken, to pass mine on to the buyer as I had some information about the history of the piece. Ms Aitken said she would not do so unless I told her what the information was. I briefly explained that there was evidence to suggest that the head might have been looted and that the provenance was faked, and that Christie’s were aware of this and did nothing. There are more chances of pigs flying than of this information being passed on to the buyer.

Said buyer took his purchase home only to voluntarily relinquish it a few months later to the Carabinieri Art Squad. Christie’s had the audacity to respond thus:

A Christie’s spokesman said: “Additional information was brought to our attention after the auction. We subsequently cancelled the sale and are assisting all relevant bodies with the return of this object.”

See how weaselly that “additional information” bit is? Because Hafed Walda told them where that head really came from before the auction so they couldn’t say they had no idea they were selling stolen goods again. No, they just got additional info long after the fact, you see, that really clinched it for them. Please. Anyway they just reimbursed the buyer and that’s the end of that. No consequences. This is why they keep selling artifacts from “Swiss private collections” over and over again, even when there’s hard evidence that they were stolen. :angry:

To close on a less enraging note, here’s a fun fact about Flavia Domitilla Minor: she died at just 21 years old three years before her father Vespasian became emperor in 69 A.D. Twelve years after that, her younger brother Domitian became emperor. He deified her and granted her the title of Augusta.

Her daughter Flavia Domitilla converted to Judaism/Christianity (the Talmud claims the former, Eusebius the latter) and was exiled to the island of Pandataria by her uncle Domitian for her “atheism” which included a refusal to worship her own mother along with the rest of the imperial family and traditional Roman pantheon. She is now a Christian saint and her former property is the exquisite catacomb of Santa Domitilla.

Brutes with iPhones steal art, antiques and beat vicar

"The Grand Canal and the Church of the Salute" by Canaletto, 1730, Museum of Fine Arts, HoustonOn January 3rd, two vicious brutes broke into a retired vicar’s house in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, beat him up and tied him to a chair, then stole the most valuable pieces from his collection of paintings and antique furniture as selected by a knowledgeable accomplice via iPhone. Before leaving they destroyed the rest of the art and antiques with a hatchet.

Authorities are keeping mum on the details while the investigation is ongoing — the vicar’s name is not being released because he is terrified of drawing attention to himself — but we know that among the stolen pieces are paintings by 18th-century Venetian master Canaletto. The total value of the stolen works is well into the millions of dollars. No word on what the rest of the vicar’s collection was worth before they took a hatchet to it, but he’s been an avid collector and a fixture at auctions for decades.

A source said: “This robbery was well-planned and ruthlessly executed. They had possibly been watching the house for months, watching the major art sales where the victim was well known.[…]

The Irish Daily Mirror understands the two men worked with a third party to assist them with the robbery. A source said: “They were on the phone to someone outside the house and from what I understand they used a hi-tech phone to show the third party which pieces were in the house.

They wanted to know which were most valuable because those are the ones that were stolen. There was a lot taken, an awful lot.

“This was a horrendous experience for the victim and it was carefully planned and executed.”

The thieves also stole the victim’s contact books which had personal information about a number of other high end art collectors, including scions of the Guinness family and Edward Haughey, Baron Ballyedmond, the richest man in Northern Ireland. All the people in the book have been alerted to the theft and advised to increase their security.

Two similar thefts took place in the same county two years ago. The Police Service of Northern Ireland and Ireland’s national police force, An Garda Siochana, are investigating any connection between the crimes.