Bone Hairpin

Object: 333
JIAAW, Wagner Collection

The Joukowsky Institute is fortunate enough to have two hairpins, one made of bone and the other of bronze, in its collection. The next two Virtual Vault entries will feature each of the two hairpins in the vault, starting with Object 333, the bone hairpin. 

Dating as far back as the Neolithic Period (c. 10,000–4,500 BCE), hairpins made of various materials and designs have been used as hairstyle tools as well as status symbols by peoples from ancient Rome and Egypt to the Shang Dynasty of China. While this particular hairpin is not believed to be ancient, it offers a useful starting point to explore the meaning and function of these delicate and fascinating beauty objects. Due to their high rates of survival in archaeological sites, bone, as opposed to precious stone or wood, is the most commonly found hairpin material in ancient settlements. According to the Museum of London, hairpins are one of the most common artifacts that have survived from Roman Britain. Interpreted as indicators of the presence of women, these hairpins have been found in domestic, industrial, and public contexts, including burial sites, waterfront dumps, forts, bath houses, and amphitheaters.

In her article “Ancient Roman hairdressing: on (hair)pins and needles,” Janet Stephens describes how Roman women used hairpins to fasten braids and twists into elaborate hairdos. (p. 116)

 A close reading of classic texts and artwork demonstrates that an ancient hairpin is perhaps not as frivolous as the lost bobby pins of today. In her analysis of the utility of hairpins in ancient Egypt, Joann Fletcher presents hairpins as both functional tools and sacred items that represented women’s connection to goddesses. More than that, hairpins with sharp ends were used by ancient women to violently assert their political stances and autonomy. In both the Roman Republic and in ancient Egypt, Fletcher asserts that the ancient woman used her hairpin as a weapon to avenge her husband’s death, an instrument to pierce her enemies, and, in the case of Cleopatra VII, even a vehicle to take her own life. 

Portrait panel of a woman named Demos, portraying a hairpin, from Hawara, c.AD 80-100 as cited by Joann Fletcher in “The Egyptian Hair Pin: practical, sacred, fatal”

It is almost impossible to decipher the original shape, much less the tiny details, that once graced this bone hairpin due to the breaks and erosion of its surface over time. One could imagine this delicate piece of carved bone being worn, positioned, broken, and later repaired in a variety of fashions and scenarios. Yet, if the women of the ancient world have taught us anything, it is to not limit our imaginations of what an object’s history could entail.

-Jinette Jimenez ‘21

Read more about ancient hairpins and see other examples:

Bone hairpin | Greek or Roman | Hellenistic or Early Imperial | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met Collection API is where all makers, creators, researchers, and dreamers can now connect to the most up-to-date data and images for more than 470,000 artworks in The Met collection. As part of The Met’s Open Access program, the data is available for unrestricted commercial and noncommercial use without permission or fee.

Museum of London | Free museum in London

Skip to main content The Museum of London holds one of the largest and most important collections of Roman hairpins in the world, including over a thousand made from bone (other materials include copper-alloy, glass and stone), the majority having been excavated from the city over the past 45 years.

hair-pin | British Museum

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“Ancient Roman hairdressing: on (hair)pins and needles.”

Ancient Roman female hairstyles were not created by wigs exclusively, as is often asserted. Elaborate Roman hairstyles could be created by sewing with needle and thread as fastener. Article examines the nomenclature, literature, artifacts and

Hair Pin

Penn Museum Object 65-2-10 – Hair Pin

The Egyptian Hair Pin: practical, sacred, fatal

Joann Fletcher Department of Archaeology, King’s Manor, University of York, YO1 7EP, UK. Email: [email protected] Cite this as: Fletcher, J. 2016 The Egyptian Hair Pin: practical, sacred, fatal, Internet Archaeology 42. Generally regarded as little more than a mundane tool employed in daily life, the humble hairpin occasionally played a rather more prominent role in history than has perhaps been appreciated.