Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2-2 (November 2010)Ton Derks; Wouter Vos: Wooden combs from the Roman fort at Vechten: the bodily appearance of soldiers

5 Uses of the comb: the mundus muliebris

Who used the combs in the fortress at Vechten and for which purpose? When writing about combs, Roman archaeologists and ancient historians have nearly invariably associated these ‘toilet articles’ with female beauty and the mundus muliebris, the world of women. Such an interpretation is in striking contrast with many other periods of the European past, when combs appear to have been either ungendered or tokens of an exclusive male identity. From the Middle Bronze Age through to the Iron Age as well as in the Middle Ages, combs and other grooming tools often served as references to masculine beauty and as such became part of the grave furnishings arranged around the dead bodies of warriors (Treherne 1995; Voutsaki 2010, 83; Mylonas 1973, 349 f.; Dickinson 1977, 45, 48 f., 84; Williams 2003, esp. 103 f., 108 f., 114). The question then comes to mind why there would have been nothing of an equivalent in the Roman interlude? Moreover, the numerous finds that have recently been reported from various Roman army camps make one feel uneasy about the strengths of the traditional interpretation. Admittedly, the presence of women in and around Roman army camps is no longer a point of discussion (Allison 2006; contributions in Brandl 2008) and some of the combs from such military contexts may indeed have been in use by the wives of officers or the concubines of ordinary soldiers, but can they account for the numbers that have been found? In view of these thoughts, one is tempted to consider whether the combs were perhaps rather used by the soldiers themselves. Two questions then force themselves upon us: first, what is the prevailing interpretation based on, and to what extent can its underpinnings stand the test of criticism today? And second, what alternative explanations are on offer? In the remainder of this paper, we will briefly review the purposes for which the combs were used by women and men. By combining a close reading of the available historical evidence with a contextual analysis of the archaeological finds as well as with analogical reasoning, we hope to arrive at a more nuanced explanation of Roman comb finds.


Fig. 6: Marble funerary monument from Çömlekçi in Asia Minor, erected by Botrys for his wife Auxese. Under the female bust, a door is depicted with representations of a mirror and comb on the upper panels. Also visible are a spindle and distaff and a lock plate, symbolizing the female virtues of physical beauty and domestic diligence (after Waelkens 1986 , pl. 11.214).

The double-sided H-combs are multi-purpose objects which were primarily used for various forms of bodily grooming.[14] Recent studies most often mention styling and delousing as their main functions (Pugsley 2003, 25; Fellmann 1991, 20; idem 2009, 69; Cruse 2007). While in those studies the question of a gendered employment of the combs is never posed (even though the finds context gave every reason to it), it is implicitly assumed that the first-mentioned way of use (styling) referred to women, and the second (delousing) to men. Neither the idea that men could have groomed their hair, nor, conversely, that the hair of women could have been infested with lice, seems to have been considered an option.[15] As we will see, this stereotyped representation can hardly have been prompted by a lack of ancient texts on comb uses by men, but seems more likely to have been generated by a combination of a selective and uncritical reading of the evidence and the implicit assumption that combs (and other items of material culture), regardless of their social context of use, always carried the same status or gender „value. The origins of this way of thinking reach back to the dawn of Roman archaeology, as demonstrated by the earliest descriptions of Roman combs from Pompeii: without much ado these were simply ranged as ‘Gegenstände des weiblichen Schmuckes’ (Overbeck 1884, 452 f.).

If such early straightforward interpretations may have been inspired by contemporary views on women rather than by the limited archaeological evidence that was available at the time, today there is a wealth of contextual data that supports the association of combs with women and female beauty. Representations of combs and other grooming tools, for instance, seem to figure nearly exclusively on memorials for women, although marked regional differences may be observed. In Asia Minor, for instance, representations of isolated combs, mirrors and oil flasks, next to a spindle and distaff and a wool basket, are common ways to portray aspects of female identity (Waelkens 1986) (fig. 6). In the funerary iconography of the Roman West on the other hand, such detached depictions of female grooming implements do occur (Boppert 1992, 82 f., Taf. 25; Zimmer 1982, no. 90 = CIL XI 1471; Goethert 1989, 283), but here the virtue of female beauty is more often expressed by scenes taken from female daily life, especially the grooming of the hair by a servant (fig. 7) (Baltzer 1983, 64 ff, esp. 67, 141, Abb. 106). From the world of religion, two inscribed votive reliefs from Laconia dating from the 2nd century A.D. may be cited. They were dedicated by two priestesses. One of them shows two combs, the other one a double-sided comb next to a range of other objects from the women’s world. Although the reliefs were found in a secondary context, there are strong indications for a prov„enance from a nearby sanctuary to Demeter. The dominance of women and apparent exclusion of men suggests that the cult of the sanctuary was directed towards women’s needs. The reliefs with the combs and other toiletry items most probably commemorated the grooming of the priestesses, possibly for a specific festival (Walker 1989).

When it comes to the archaeological finds themselves, property inscriptions such as the one on the unprovenanced ivory comb from the British Museum in London are rare, but as a rule refer to female owners.[16] Convincing evidence for the comb as a female grooming tool is also provided by exceptional finds such as the beauty case from Cumae (Aßkamp et al., 2007, 69, Abb. 6, 273 f., cat. no. 8.14) which contained a double-sided bone comb, a bronze mirror, a gold ring, two silver brooches, a spindle and a hairpin. Given the precious jewellery and the case’s rich decoration with carved ivory plates, the owner of the case must have been a rich upper class female. Similarly and more importantly, long lists of comb finds from more prosaic burials may be cited as references to the same virtue of female beauty (e.g. Goethert 1989; Bridger & Kraus 2000, 49, 59, 75-76). One example that deserves special attention here is an exceptionally well preserved burial, discovered in the late 19th century at Martres-de-Veyre (Puy-de-Dôme) (Audollent 1922; Vallat 1994). A small, 80 cm long wooden coffin contained the corpse of a young girl no older than six years. The burial was situated in an area surrounded by mineral water springs, the carbonic acid gas of which had affected the partial preservation of the body’s skin, hair and flesh. Among the furnishings were three wooden pyxides, a wickerwork basket filled with fruit and a spindle and distaff with a ball of wool. According to an eye-witness, the girl had ‘une chevelure abondante, relevée en touffe sur le front et retenue à la partie supérieure de la tête par un peigne de buis à double range de dents’ (Audollent 1922, 287; cf. Vallat 1994, 183, 186: inv. no. 987.23.22). The find is not just exceptional for its amazing preservation conditions, but also for the unique proof it provides of a double-sided box comb used for the dressing of hair. The comb served to fasten the girl’s hair high at the back of her head, a usage which has until recently been unknown in the Roman period (Lafaye 1904, 364; Fellmann 2009, 72; Pugsley 2003, 25).


Fig. 7: Detail of the left side of the so-called Elternpaarpfeiler from Neumagen with a ‘toilet scene’ in which a servant is styling the hair of a seated matrona (photo T. Derks). That the grooming scene functioned as a gendered representation of female identity becomes most clear from the fact that the opposite right side shows scenes which are emblematic of male identity – a man on horseback returning from a hunt as well as a landlord doing the bookkeeping – whereas the central front panel shows man and woman as the married couple who gave the monument its name (cf. Von Massow 1932 , 158-163, pl. 31-34, Abb. 106).

The above-cited examples of both comb finds and iconographic depictions of combs provide strong arguments for the comb as a marked symbol of female identity, especially in the ritual context of the funeral. Against this background, the apparent absence of combs, real or depicted, on male funerary monuments or in tombs for men, is most striking. Since a systematic inventory of comb finds and comb representations from the entire Roman empire was clearly beyond the scope of this paper, it remains for future research to challenge the validity of this preliminary observation, but on the basis of the evidence discussed so far we may conclude that in the Roman period combs played no significant role in the construction of male identity.