Roman wooden combs are still a relatively neglected class of material culture, both in the field and in analysis. The preservation of the Vechten combs is mainly due to the efforts of the pres„ent owners of the private collection, one of whom has a professional background as a carpenter. In addition, publications on similar objects have been rather descriptive and restricted in terms of interpretation. We hope to have shown that through a contextual and interdisciplinary analysis these artefacts can shed light on the organisation of their production and exchange as well as the consumers and the ways they used them.
While the number of published boxwood combs from the Roman empire is still relatively low, the exceptional conditions of the Egyptian desert and northern European waterlogged sites such as Vindolanda, Vindonissa and Vechten provide helpful windows for assessing the true size of their circulation. The conclusion forces itself upon us that they must have been ubiquitous. Moreover, they were used by all members of society, from the well-educated audience of the Roman poets who metaphorically referred to the combs by the wood species from which they were made (cf. note 1) to the ordinary soldiers in the barracks of Roman forts. While elite women used them for styling their hair into the elaborate hair styles we know so well from Roman female portraits, their main use may have been far more prosaic. The double-sided comb which united a fine and a coarse comb was perfectly suited for disentangling and cleaning hair. The ready acceptance of the comb in the provinces of the empire, in areas where the implement had hardly been known in prehistory and where it had first become available thanks to the new possibilities of long-distance exchange, is a sign of the rapidly changing ideas on personal hygiene and bodily appearance (cf. Hill 1997). Among the new practices of body care is the regular cleaning of the hair and the scalp. In some social contexts, such as army camps in which men were packed together and contamination of the community with lice and other parasites may have been easy and frequent (cf. Allason-Jones 1999), the comb may have been a very welcome implement. On the basis of their frequency in Roman forts, it has been argued that each soldier possessed his own comb, whether privately purchased or provided by the army. The analogy with early modern or contemporary state armies suggests that the appearance of the soldier’s body was subject to disciplinary rules of the army authorities rather than just a matter of personal choice. Despite the marked absence of combs in male tombs or on funerary monuments for men, combs from military settlements show the importance the comb had for the construction of male identity, at least for that part of the empire’s male population that joined the army.