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A Knotted History of Slavery in York: Roman Hair and Ovid’s Amores by Will Cavanagh, English Literature student at the University of York

During an excavation in 1875 at the site of what is now York Railway Station, an auburn knot of hair was discovered within a decorated lead coffin, fastened by pins of Whitby jet. It was cut from the head of a young woman who lived between 250 and 410 BC. It is now on display at the Yorkshire Museum.

Ovid’s Amores, a collection of poems formed of elegiac couplets and narrated in first-person, is a meditation on feelings of love toward the character Corinna, an upper-class Roman woman. It can help us to understand the cultural significance of hair in Roman York. Indeed, in Book 1 Elegy 14, Ovid describes how it was common practice for rich women to affix hairpieces, often sourced from their slaves, over ageing or damaged hair. The narrative voice advises Corrina to do the same:

‘Nunc tibi captīvōs mittet Germānia crīnēs;

tūta triumphātae mūnere gentis eris.’

Anthony Kline translates this as follows:

‘Now you’ll send for the hair of German prisoners:

you’ll be safe, with the gift of conquered peoples.’

The use of the noun ‘gift’ in Kline’s translation suggests that slaves would part with their hair willingly, imbuing them with an agency that, by virtue of their enslavement, they could not possess. It is not known whether this particular hairpiece was indeed cut from the head of a slave. Yet, as a focal point on display in the Yorkshire Museum, it becomes a visually arresting symbol of the oppressive cultural practices explored in Ovid’s Amores. Tightly bound by pins, the hairpiece is almost a metaphor for the enslaved people themselves and the suffering they would have endured. Perhaps we can read the twisted knot as evoking the restraints inherent in a society structured around slave labour whilst the pins that bind it might be seen as redolent of the spears and swords used to enforce, in the words of historian Patrick Ottaway, the ‘strict military control’ that characterised the administration of York’s population.

In Elegy 14 of Ovid’s Amores, hair is foregrounded as an inherently sexual literary agent; allusions are made to the wet hair of the naked goddess of love and beauty, Venus (think Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus), and the tousled ringlets of alluring Bacchants, servants of the debaucherous Dionysus (consider Caravaggio’s The Young Bacchus). Thus, hair is portrayed as an object of sexual desire designed to ensnare men. It is important to consider this in the context that hairpieces, perhaps even this one displayed in the Yorkshire Museum, would have been manufactured through oppression; the removal of the slave’s hair therefore becomes a symbol of ownership over not only the physical body of the slave but also their sexual agency. In the act of wearing the hairpiece, the rich Roman woman for whom the hair was made takes symbolic possession of, and appropriates, the agency and identity of the person from whom the hair was taken. It is a symbolic rape. Indeed, the Latin word from which ‘rape’ is derived, ‘rapere’, means ‘to seize and carry off, snatch away’. Parallels can be drawn between this and the narrator’s advice to Corrina that she ‘send’ for the hair of ‘German prisoners’, seizing and snatching away a symbol of their autonomy. This literary trope is mirrored in Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, through Fantine in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and even in Leonard Cohen’s refence to Samson and Delilah in ‘Hallelujah’: ‘She tied you to a kitchen chair | She broke your throne, and she cut your hair | And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah’. In each case, the loss of hair represents the individual’s loss of agency and individual identity to institutions or people.

By displaying the hairpiece in the Yorkshire Museum, however, it might be argued that some of this agency has been restored. It is no longer being appropriated as an object of sexual power, it has been freed from the rich Roman woman with whom it was buried (although signs of oppression persist through the hairpins and knot), and analysis is being conducted to discover more about the individual from whom the hair originated.

The antiquarian Reverend James Raine, a member of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society (which operated the Yorkshire Museum until 1961), recorded in 1875 that ‘very little remained of the body or its garniture, save this beautiful curl.’ Potentially, therefore, the slaves have symbolically outlived their masters. There seems something poetically just in this reversal. Whilst the Roman walls have crumbled along with their institutions and hierarchies of power to a handful of dust, this hairpiece perseveres through the syllables of recorded time. Therefore, there is a sense of ‘writing back’ against the grain of the oppressive practices endorsed in Ovid’s Amores.

Further Reading

Ottaway, Patrick. Roman York. Stroud: History Press, 2013.

Ovid. Amores. Translated by Anthony Kline. London: Create Space, 2001.

York Museum Trust. Hairpiece Archival Description. YORYM: 1998.695.

York Museum Trust. Hairpiece with Jet Hairpins. AD 250-410 York Railway Station. YORYM: 1998.695.

York Historic Environment Record. Monument record MYO2010. York Railway Station.