“Almost Cut My Hair”: A Razor from the German Bronze Age

“Almost Cut My Hair” was a song by Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, expressing the protest of young people against the Vietnam War in the late 60ies. I remember well a highly emotional debate about my hair with my parents during that time, which ended in a rotten compromise.

For sure modifications of the body hair have and had an extremely symbolic connotation and are linked with self-perception and personal identity. Archaeological finds that are directly related to the question of shaving and depilation during Paleolithic times are extremely rare. We know nothing about these topics during the Early and Middle Paleolithic. All the reconstructions of the hairs of early man are therefore based on pure fantasy.

Are there indications for body hair during the Upper Paleolithic?  Although many of the “Venus” figurines often display delicately lines representing either hair or a headdress, we have no figurines, displaying pubic hairs. There are only a few fragments of unequivocal male sculptures. Specimens, that display some details are the “Man of Brünn“(Gravettian) and the ivory figure from the Stadel cave in the Swabian Jura, called the “Löwenmensch” (Aurignacian). Regarding the specimen from Brünn, it cannot be decided whether the artist wanted carve a pronounced chin or if the figure has a short beard. The “Löwenmensch” of course has a feline, but not a human head.

Significant is the dark beard on the painted bas-relief of Angles sur l’Anglin (Magdalenian). More beards can be seen on Magdalenian drawings from Isturitz, Lourdes, La Madeleine, and Péchialet Colombière. On the other hand other faces of male Magdalenian humans at La Madeleine, Isturitz, Gourdan, Mas d’Azil and La Marche are beardless. It has been early recognized, that Upper Paleolithic drawings of people are distinct from the majority of contemporaneous animal images. They usually were made sketchy, caricature-like,  and are full of dark symbolism. Some resemble mythical creatures and some seem to be masked. The so-called “Wizard of Trois Frères “, for example, carries a long, straggly beard below his mysterious masked face.

Doubt, however, is advisable in the diagnosis of many Paleolithic bearded faces, while many of the perfectly smooth faces are clearly meant beardless. But even if we  ignore uncertainties in the interpretation, the result of our cursory overview remains a surprise. I would have expected more indications of beard growth in our male Pleistocene ancestors.

Only a minority of the numerous Neolithic idolsare male and the examples that are complete are rare. The sickle-bearing “Szegvár” man”, is obviously wearing a mask. The stony beings from Lepenski Vir are, whatever they may imagine, beardless. The “Penseur „from Cernavoda (Romania, Hamangia Culture) has a smooth chin in his hands. A male terracotta figurine Larissa shows no trace of hair on his face. The same holds through for the heads of a other seated figureines from other Thessalian Neolithic sites. Men with beards are also absent in the Spanish rock art (whether Mesolithic or Neolithic is irrelevant in this context) and the Neolithic rock art of the Sahara.

To early Egyptians, a smooth and hairless body was the standard of beauty. The practice first gained total acceptance when it was practiced by the wife of the Pharaoh and afterwards, every upper class Egyptian woman made sure there was not a single hair on her body with the exception of her head. After  3,5 k.a BC, Egyptian women usually removed body hair with depilatory creams made from with such questionable ingredients as arsenic and quicklime and by a form of waxing that utilized a sticky emulsion of oil and honey – the forerunner of what now is called “sugaring.”. Copper razors appeared around 3,0 k.a. BC in both India and Egypt. The most elaborate razors of prehistory appear around 1,6 to 1,2 k.a. BC in Scandinavia and Northern Germany.  In Northern Europe, razors, often decorated with ornaments and symbols, became regular utensils in male graves. Most of these razors have been found in late Bronze Age cremation burials and seldom in scrap hoards. Another grave good, often with along the razor, were tweezers that may have served for the same cosmetic purpose. They also had the function to rip out the unwanted (beard) hair.

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