Janet Stephens likes to say she has a secret identity. By day she’s a mild-mannered hairdresser in Baltimore, Maryland. But a museum trip led her to become a “hairdo archeologist,” unraveling the secrets of the elaborate braided hairstyles favored by women in ancient Rome.
“Through a leap of intuition, I thought, ‘Oh darn it, that bun looks so much like the braided rugs that my grandmothers made when I was a child,'” Stephens told the BBC. “And so, when I tried sewing it together with a needle and thread, the thing came together beautifully. I thought to myself, ‘Well, has anybody said this before? Has anyone figured this out?'”
Stephens discovered that history scholars thought the hairdos favored by the likes of Empress Julia Domna were actually wigs, so Stephens took it upon herself to document her findings.
“It got to the point where you can’t keep it to yourself,” she said to the BBC. “You start writing to yourself and scribbling away. I’m not a good writer — I’m a hairdresser.”
After a seven-year process, Stephens’ findings were published in the Journal of Roman Archaeology.
The ensuing interest in her research has taken Stephens away from her regular salon setting.
“Most of the attention I’ve been getting has been a little diffuse through the country, and abroad, rather than right here in Baltimore,” she told the BBC about the braided styles. “But, you know, Baltimore hair is legend. They can’t be impressed by anything.”
Watch the BBC’s report on Stephens’ discovery, aired on Sunday, below.