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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.
Hairpins were used by Roman women to fix and decorate the hair, although they may have had other uses such as applicators for cosmetics. They are one of the most common artefacts to survive from Roman Britain and are incredibly important to archaeologists as they are one of the few objects that provide definite evidence for the presence of Roman women. On certain types of sites, such as forts and military camps, women’s presence cannot be assumed or taken for granted. Roman hairpins from London appear in a wide array of contexts, including graves and waterfront dumps and in association with buildings such as the Amphitheatre, Fort and Bath Houses as well as domestic and industrial areas of the city.
The hairpins in the Museum's collection have been ascribed to a typology created by Nina Crummy in her analysis of the Roman finds excavated in Colchester (Types 1 to 6). Crummy's typology was defined by the shape of the hairpin's head in relation to the form of the shaft. Based on their type, the hairpins have also been assigned to a Group (A or B) which dates them as either early (AD 43 – 250) or late (AD 250 – 410+) – defined by Stephen Greep (1983) in his study of worked bone from Roman Britain. Some hairpins are incredibly ornate and can feature unusual decorative heads representing animals, female busts and hands, as well as stylised objects such as pinecones. Such decorative hairpins represent only a small portion of the overall collection and have been previously published by Hall & Wardle (2005).
The bone hairpins have been catalogued and digitised as part of the LAARC's volunteer programme 'Opening Up to Archaeology', funded by Arts Council England (ACE). Our volunteers are now researching the bone hairpin assemblages to explore some of the following research questions:
• Can the evidence from London help to refine the dating of different types of hairpin?
• Do hairpin sizes/types change at the same time as hairstyles?
• Were fashions the same in London as in other Roman cities? Are there any distinctive local hairpin types?
• What does the spatial distribution of early vs. late Roman hairpins suggest about the changing size of the city over time?
• Are hairpins concentrated in certain parts of the city or its hinterland? What might this tell us about gender roles in Roman London?
Thanks go to our volunteer team: Julie Breen, Emma Devereux, Melissa Emmett, Matthew Madigan, David Powell, Ben Scicluna, Zoe Waite and John Walledge.
References and further reading:
Allason-Jones, L. (ed.) 2011. Artefacts in Roman Britain: their purpose and use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Crummy N. 1983. Colchester archaeological report 2: The Roman small finds from excavations in Colchester 1971-9. Colchester: Colchester Archaeological Trust Ltd.
Greep, S. 1983. Objects of animal bone, antler, ivory and teeth from Roman Britain. Unpublished PhD thesis: University of Cardiff.
Hall, J. & Wardle, A. 2005. Dedicated followers of fashion? Decorative bone hairpins from Roman London. In: N. Crummy (ed.) Image, craft and the classical world: essays in honour of Donald Bailey and Catherine Johns. Montagnac: éditions monique mergoil. 173-178.
Stephens, J. 2008. Ancient Roman hairdressing: on (hair)pins and needles. Journal of Roman Archaeology 21. 111-132.