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.
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.
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: