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HIDDEN HISTORIES OF THE HAIR PIN starring CLEOPATRA & THE ‘WEARERS OF BLACK’


Hairdresser Henut, using a hairpin to style the hair of Queen Nefru, c.2000 BC, from Nefru’s tomb at Deir el-Bahari and now in Brooklyn Museum (copyright J.Fletcher)


This month at Immortal Egypt we’ve been looking at natural dyes as part of our longstanding ‘Ancient Adornments Project’. Beginning almost 40 years ago with our first foray into the world of ancient hairdressing, the way the Egyptians cut, shaved, styled and dyed their hair – both real and fake - gives us a real shared point of contact, helping us see them as people much like us, with many of the same daily routines.


Of course for those drawn in purely by the allure of ancient gold, monumental architecture and esoteric belief systems, personal adornment might seem too mundane to merit much attention, which was certainly true when we began our work back in the mid-1980s. But for me it’s always given a very valuable route in to try and understand Egyptians throughout society, not just the 1% literate elite able to leave us a convenient written record.


And by studying the smaller objects used in everyday lives we can begin to tap into their long-lost world, something exemplified by the humble hairpin which, occasionally, played a rather more prominent role in history than is often appreciated (Internet Archaeol. 42. Fletcher. The Egyptian Hair Pin: practical, sacred, fatal (intarch.ac.uk))


Human hair with 4 bone pins from a predynastic burial at Hiw (Diospolis Parva) c.3500 BC, Ashmolean Museum (copyright J.Fletcher)


Certainly during the 4th millennium BC if not earlier, pins of bone and ivory were used to secure long hair in an upswept style at the back of the head (see above). Then as various types of pin emerged over time, examples were also fashioned from wood, glass, gold, silver and bronze, with two 12cm long bronze examples found within the long plaited hair of Theban Princess Ahmose c.1500 BC to maintain her style’s shape. An anonymous woman buried at Gurob in northern Egypt some 1600 years later during Roman times had her hair secured in a bun using assorted bone, silver and tortoiseshell pins, while at the other end of their empire here in Yorkshire, the Romans of Eboracum (York) developed a real passion for hairpins of Whitby jet, whose gleaming black colour symbolised new life within the cult of Egypt’s goddess Isis whose worship had certainly spread to Northern Britain by then.


Human hair with 2 jet pins from a Roman burial in Eboracum (York), late AD C.3rd, Yorkshire Museum (copyright J.Fletcher)


Yet beyond their use to secure hair, hairpins were also used as a hairstyling tool, with scenes from Queen Nefru’s tomb at Deir el-Bahri c.2000 BC showing the hairdresser Henut busily styling the queen’s long hair (below), using a large hairpin to hold back a portion of hair when working on the section below.


Hairdresser Henut using a hairpin to style the hair of Queen Nefru c.2000 BC, from Nefru’s tomb at Deir el-Bahari and now in Brooklyn Museum (copyright J.Fletcher)


With Nefru married to King Montuhotep II, his other wives, also buried at Deir el-Bahri and whose remains we studied back in 1997, are likewise shown having their hair styled too. An unnamed hairdresser is again shown using a pin to deftly style and re-plait the shorter coiffure of Queen Kawit, who was also a priestess of the goddess Hathor along with a third queen, Kemsit, likewise buried at Deir el-Bahari which was Hathor’s spiritual home.


And here the royal women’s funerary scenes emphasised the importance of hairdressing within the cult of Hathor aka ‘She of the Beautiful Hair’, whose attributes were gradually absorbed by her fellow goddess Isis ‘the fair tressed’ during the first millennium BC. Isis’ hair was even worshipped in its own right at Abydos, with hairdressing equipment carried in ritual processions by her priestesses the melanophores or ‘wearers of black’ (the Egyptian colour of new life and resurrection). And according to the North African-born Roman author Apuleius in his AD C.2nd story ‘Metamorphoses’, these same Isis priestesses “declared by their gestures and motions of their arms and fingers that they were ordained and ready to dress and adorn the goddess’s hair”.


Clearly playing a role in the lives of female worshippers and in the daily lives of women throughout the Graeco-Roman world, hairpins continued to be used to style and secure the hair and if pierced with a hole could even be used needle-like to stitch hair into elaborate styles (3) "Ancient Roman hairdressing: on (hair)pins and needles." | Janet Stephens - Academia.edu (this ‘crossover’ between hairdressing and textile production something we’ve also encountered in our studies of pre-Incan ‘woven’ hairstyles but I digress…..!).


Yet beyond the realm of the everyday, the humble hairpin became a weapon. In 43 BC when the orator Cicero was killed, his severed head was hung in the Forum in Rome on the orders of Mark Antony in revenge for Cicero’s repeated accusations against Antony and his third wife Fulvia. And taking her own revenge a step further, historian Cassius Dio reveals how Fulvia took down the head and “set it on her knees, opened the mouth, and pulled out the tongue, which she pierced with the pins that she used for her hair”.


‘Fulvia With the Head of Cicero’ by Russian artist Pavel Svedomsky (1898) (public domain)


Recalling an episode in Apuleius’ aforementioned ‘Metamorphoses’ in which a widow sought out her husband’s murderer, “took a great needle from her head and pricked out both his eyes”, Roman poet Ovid also described a downtrodden hairdresser punished by her cruel mistress who “sticks a needle in her arm in a fit of temper” to draw both “blood and tears”.


But by far the most dramatic use of a hairpin in history may well be the means by which Mark Antony’s fifth and final wife, and Egypt’s last native-born pharaoh, the great Cleopatra, took her own life. As the dramatic ending to my 2008 book ‘Cleopatra the Great’ Store | Immortal Egypt (below), it looks at the various hairstyles she’d worn throughout her life, from her standard upswept bun secured with pearl-studded hairpins to evidence she was quite likely a redhead, as we also discuss in a new book ‘True Colours’ produced by the natural cosmetics company LUSH True Colours Book | The World of Henna Hair Dyes | LUSH


Jo’s 2008 book ‘Cleopatra the Great’ and an artist’s impression of Cleopatra’s hair by D. Islas (courtesy of LUSH)


Certainly Cleopatra styled herself ‘the New Isis’, and according to Roman historian Plutarch even dressed as the goddess. Requiring the aforementioned black robes (below) plus bracelets in the form of the snakes also associated with the goddess, Isis’ epithet ‘fair-tressed’ meant that Cleopatra’s hair played a prominent part in her public life. But so too it seems in her private life and its dramatic end.


Marble statue of Isis in black robes, found in Naples and now in Vienna’s Museum of Art History (public domain)


Now of course everyone knows the legend of Cleopatra and her fatal asp, but this is largely based on descriptions of her posthumous wax effigy paraded around Rome with snakes coiling up the effigy’s arms in the manner of Isis. And while this was the best way to express her cause of death to the Roman crowds, it’s highly unlikely that the fatal venom was administered directly by the snake itself.


Despite assumptions it must have been smuggled to her inside a small basket since she was by then under house arrest, it’s equally unlikely that the snake was an ‘asp’, another term for the North African viper whose venom causes vomiting and incontinence before death. Based on her studies of toxicology, Cleopatra would have known that, plus the fact that the venom of the Egyptian cobra causes drowsiness and gradual paralysis, and far more suitable for the stage-managed suicide she’d been planning with her two servants.


But as John Whitehorne has pointed out (Cleopatras: Amazon.co.uk: Whitehorne, John: 9780415058063: Books), a cobra with sufficient venom to kill a human is around 2 metres long, and since it discharges its venom in its first bite, 3 such large creatures would have been needed to kill all three women (not to mention some very large baskets in which to carry them all!). So Plutarch alternatively suggested that a snake was already in her quarters and “kept in a vase, and that she vexed and pricked it with a golden spindle till it seized her arm”.


Yet his most credible suggestion is the fact that “she carried poison in a hollow bodkin about which she wound her hair”, with fellow historian Cassius Dio adding that “she had smeared a pin with some poison” and “had previously worn the pin in her hair as usual”.


And given the importance of hairdressers throughout Egypt’s long, long history, it does seem rather significant that Cleopatra chose to die with her maid Charmion and hairdresser Eiras. Previously ridiculed by Cleopatra’s Roman enemy Octavian who’d claimed “the generals we will fight are little more than Cleopatra’s hairdressing girl”, Eiras may well have helped deprive him of his greatest Triumph. For she would have supplied the hairpin with which, according to Cassius Dio, Cleopatra “made a small scratch in her arm and caused the poison to enter the blood”, swiftly terminating 3,000 years of pharaonic rule and changing the course of western history.


So as we tend to find in archaeology, it can often be the most modest objects which tell the greatest stories...

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