U.S. ‘hair archaeologist’ recreates coiffures of antiquity

Stephens learned that elaborate styles were made using a needle and thread.

BALTIMORE, Maryland: By day, Janet Stephens cuts and colors at a hair salon. By night, she is an amateur archaeologist, meticulously recreating hairstyles dating back to the times of Roman antiquity.

Stephens, 54, who has worked as a hairdresser for more than two decades, recreates updos from the Roman era at her home in Baltimore, about 65 kilometers from Washington, D.C.

She combines her vocation as hairdresser with her love of archaeology, in the process revealing the secrets of how women wore their hair in ancient times.

Stephens styled the hair of one particular mannequin as it would have been worn by Empress Plotina around 110 A.D., pointing out that the unique braided loops and coils signaled her exalted status.

Historians and archaeologist long believed that the elaborate hairdos of women of that era as depicted in marble sculpture were merely flights of artistic imagination, that bore little relationship to the real styles of women at that time.

But Stephens, a trim redhead, said the intricate updos were fairly faithful representations of how women of that social station actually wore their hair.

“The styles work,” Stephens said. “When you know how to look at them, you see their logic,” she said.

“You can see the braids starting at one spot and traveling to another spot and turning into something else.”

Stephens’ exhaustive research has helped her to develop a novel theory as to how some of the most elaborate hairstyles of the day came about.

She surmised that some of the elaborate and unwieldy dos were made using a needle and thread to keep them in place.

“The theory before mine was that all these hairstyles were either made for wigs or that they were the complete inventions of the sculptors who portrayed these women,” she said.

“I had a leap of intuition, as I was sweating in my basement over [one] hairstyle and I realized that if I sewed it together with a needle and thread, it worked and I could make all of them.”

She guessed that slaves probably used a needle and thread to stitch together the elaborate hairstyles that could then stay in place for days.

Stephens haunted museums, spent long hours in libraries, and even learned German to continue her research, back up her theory and draft a paper in which to present her evidence.

She discovered – with help from the second century grammarian Pompeius Festus – that the Latin word “acus” normally translated as “pin” can also be translated to mean “needle.”

The telltale clue provided evidence that the hairstyles of antiquity might indeed have been sewn into place. Stephens published her findings in the Journal of Roman Archaeology, making her one of the few nonacademics to have written an article in the scholarly periodical.

She said the fact that she was not a scholar allowed her to approach her research with an unjaundiced eye.

“I was not looking for something in advance,” she told AFP. “I came in as a hairdresser, and I knew an awful lot about hair.”

Stephens posted her meticulous recreations on YouTube, demonstrating in painstaking detail how the hair first is carefully sectioned, then plaited, looped and twirled, sometimes covered partially or entirely with a head wrap.

She even uses historically accurate tools to recreate the elaborate hair designs, including bone needle, gum acacia and rudimentary curling irons.

Stephens said she does not pursue her hobby for profit, but has encouraged Hollywood producers seeking to make movie scenes set in ancient Rome to log onto YouTube to see how she does it.

She has been amused over the years to see the fanciful, but totally inaccurate, depictions of how to recreate the hairstyles that have been all but lost to time.

Stephens chuckles when thinking back to 1970s British television series “I, Claudius,” which depicted hairdos that no woman of the Roman Empire would ever have worn. “In ‘I, Claudius’ it is hilarious how ’70s the hair is,” she said. “At no time during Roman fashion history did any woman ever wear a side parting. It’s always from the center. It’s always symmetrical.”

Now though, as Stephens points out, historically inaccurate hairdos can be a thing of the past.

“I’m sure Hollywood can go to my YouTube channel and find all they need to know about how to do this.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 14, 2013, on page 13.




Your feedback is important to us!

We invite all our readers to share with us their views and comments about this article.

Disclaimer: Comments submitted by third parties on this site are the sole responsibility of the individual(s) whose content is submitted. The Daily Star accepts no responsibility for the content of comment(s), including, without limitation, any error, omission or inaccuracy therein. Please note that your email address will NOT appear on the site.

Alert: If you are facing problems with posting comments, please note that you must verify your email with Disqus prior to posting a comment. follow this link to make sure your account meets the requirements. (

comments powered by Disqus



Interested in knowing more about this story?

Click here