How a Baltimore Hairdresser Became a World-Renowned “Hair Archaeologist” of Ancient Rome


In 2001, Janet Stephens, a Bal­ti­more hair­dress­er, caught sight of a bust of Roman empress Julia Dom­na at the Wal­ters Art Muse­um (the image above is of a bust in the Lou­vre). Cap­ti­vat­ed by the philoso­pher empress’s hair­do, she thought “holy cow, that is so cool… like a loaf of bread sit­ting on her head.” Thus began Stephens’ quest to recre­ate the coif­fures of ladies of antiq­ui­ty.

Stephens first set about try­ing the empress’s hair­style on a man­nequin, with no suc­cess. She under­took some research and found that schol­ars gen­er­al­ly assumed that the elab­o­rate, sculpt­ed hair­styles of Roman ladies could only be wigs. This set off Stephens’ skep­tic detec­tor, and—armed with no more than her free time, some dogged research meth­ods, and a few vol­un­teer models—she ven­tured to dis­prove the schol­ar­ly con­sen­sus. As The Wall Street Jour­nal tells it:

In 2005, she had a break­through. Study­ing trans­la­tions of Roman lit­er­a­ture, Ms. Stephens says, she real­ized the Latin term “acus” was prob­a­bly being mis­un­der­stood in the con­text of hair­dress­ing. Acus has sev­er­al mean­ings includ­ing a “sin­gle-prong hair­pin” or “nee­dle and thread,” she says. Trans­la­tors gen­er­al­ly went with “hair­pin.”

The sin­gle-prong pins could­n’t have held the intri­cate styles in place. But a nee­dle and thread could. It backed up her hair hypoth­e­sis.

Her per­sis­tence paid off. In 2008, she pub­lished an arti­cle in the Jour­nal of Roman Archae­ol­o­gy detail­ing her find­ings on Roman hair. Stephens is now a rec­og­nized author­i­ty on ancient hair­styles and a “hair archae­ol­o­gist.”

See Stephens at work and hear WSJ reporter Abi­gail Pes­ta tell the sto­ry in the video below.

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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