October 4, 2011

Hair in History: Bronze and Iron Age Europe

I started looking at Bronze and Iron Age Europe for information on societal mores in respect to shaving and aesthetics ages ago--likely years.  I had been to an exhibit on bog mummies years before that, and it fascinated me.  One of the reasons was because the mummies were so well preserved you could find their beauty kits with them, and see their chin stubble and tell if their hands were manicured.  However, the more I looked into Bronze Age shaving, the less I found, beyond pictures of artifacts showing these cultures did engage in some forms of hair removal.  This frustrated me, so I left off researching for some time.

And then I started looking at these Northern European cultures beyond the Bronze Age, and found a little more to go on.  Enough for a blog post, finally.  As always, much of this information is taken from the Internet, and I can’t vouch for its authenticity.  All I can do is try to get a sense of what is a legitimate research paper by someone of authority, and what has just been copied and pasted from hobby website to hobby website, and little more than hearsay.

When it comes to the earliest societies like those of the Bronze Age (3200-600 BC in Europe), sources seem inclined to say that people were not concerned with vanity, as they did not have mirrors to really preen in front of.  It’s certainly intriguing to think of a time when people were not concerned with aesthetics, but even though aesthetics as a set of clear principles was said to originate in Greece (700-300 BC; see this post), it’s hard to believe people weren’t judging each other based on appearances before that time.  Perhaps, though, body hair was not considered a changeable area of one’s appearance.

Still, we have tweezers and scraping utensils dating back to the Bronze Age (pictured), so obviously there was some plucking and shaving going on.  Try as I might, I could find no information on why.

Moving on to the Iron Age in Europe (1200 BC-400 AD), when most bog mummies are found to have lived, we have apparent evidence of shaving, hair gel and manicures.  Because these bodies are believed to be either victims of a ritual sacrifice or a criminal execution, they are usually found naked or partially clothed and usually without any utensils, there is only forensic evidence to go by.

The Tollund Man (pictured) for instance, was found with about 1 mm of stubble on his chin, which they suggest meant he did not shave on the day of his death.  (I’d love to find more information on how they draw this conclusion, as the skin normally does tighten after death, forcing hair under the skin through the hair follicles so it appears to be still growing.  Maybe being buried in a bag counteracts this?)  Of course, the question remains, why was he shaved at all?  Was it normal for him, or part of the ritual?

Some of the bodies have been found with half their head shaved, like the Yde Girl and Windeby I, but it has also been suggested that one side of their heads may have been exposed to oxygen longer than the other while in the bog.

Now, two of the most interesting bog mummies to me are the Clonycavan Man and the Old Croghan Man, which according to National Geographic were found at the same time, 40 km apart, and dated around the same time as well.  Both were assumed to be of high status.  The Old Croghan Man’s hands indicated no manual labor in his lifetime, and are said to be manicured.  The Clonycavan Man’s hair was discovered in a mohawk-like style, and evidently held there by the aid of hair gel made from plan oil and pine resin from France or Spain.  So not only was it hair gel, but it was imported hair gel, and probably expensive.  Some also guess that he wore his hair that way to compensate for being shorter in stature.

And that’s really all the relevant information I could find for aesthetics in this era.  However, as the Romans begin to encounter the tribes of Western and Northern Europe, we get to see some actual recordings of what they looked like and how they lived, as well as writings from such cultures themselves.  I’ve found more about ancient Scandinavia than the British Isles, so you can look forward to some information on Vikings!

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