The Hairdresser and the Archaeologist

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Coin of Julia Domna I
Coin of Julia Domna by Rasiel Suarez, licensed under a CC-BY-SA license.

I don’t know much about hairdos, especially those that were in vogue 1500 years ago. But it turns out that the experts may not have known everything there is to know about them either. A couple weeks ago, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal was a story1 about a very unusual hairdresser named Janet Stephens.

Ms. Stephens is a hairdresser by trade, but has done something not very many hairdressers before her have done. She has published research2 in an academic journal—the Journal of Roman Archaeology. Apparently after work she goes home and tries to recreate the hairdos of the ancient Romans. But as she studied the history books and conducted experiments, she couldn’t get the hairdos to hold together. Nevertheless, she persisted and finally had a breakthrough. Quoting from the newspaper article: “Studying translations of Roman literature, Ms. Stephens says, she realized the Latin term ‘acus’ was probably being misunderstood in the context of hairdressing. Acus has several meanings including a ‘single-prong hairpin’ or ‘needle and thread,’ she says. Translators generally went with ‘hairpin.’”

All of her research and experimentation seemed to point to the fact that the ancients used needle and thread to stitch together their hair designs.

The most remarkable thing to me, however, is that she took the time to publish her findings. “It’s amazing how much chutzpah you have when you have no idea what you’re doing,” she said. “I don’t write scholarly material. I’m a hairdresser.” The journal’s editor, John Humphrey surmised, “I could tell even from the first version that it was a very serious piece of experimental archaeology which no scholar who was not a hairdresser—in other words, no scholar—would have been able to write.”

This highlights, in my opinion, one of the brightest possibilities for the future of research and research collaboration: we should not leave all of the discovery of knowledge to the academically elite. One of my favorite authors, Meg Wheatley, writes about the new thought on leadership and organization, which can also be applied to research:

In the traditional model, we leave the interpretation of data to senior or expert people. A few people, charged with interpreting the data, observe only a few potentialities contained within that data. How often do we even think about all the data that goes unnoticed because we rely on these solitary observations?

… It would seem that the more participants we engage in this participative universe, the more we can access its potentials and the wiser we can become. We banish the ghosts of this ghostly universe by engaging in a different pattern of behavior—one in which more and more of us are included in the process of observing what is going on, and contributing our unique interpretations…

— Margaret J. Wheatley, from Leadership and the New Science, pp. 66–7

While practitioners discover new things every day, few take the time (or would even want to learn how) to publish their findings in a scholarly journal. But I think many could and would participate in the research process, if there were easier ways to do so.

As a side thought, for many in the academic and research communities, the publication of journal articles is tied tightly to job continuity and promotion. Yet, scholarly writing, in many cases, is too byzantine and impenetrable for human consumption. It is almost as if the writers were more concerned about keeping the research to themselves rather than freely disseminating it to the world.3

There should be no excuse for researchers to continue working in isolation. The current research publication process worked well when the only way to publish involved printed paper. We live in a different world now and the publication process needs to be redesigned for this new world.

Either way, what is so cool to me is that someone down in the trenches—not in the ivory tower—figured it out. Ms. Stephens had a different perspective and could discern the existing holes in logic that the “experts” couldn’t see. She is an unusual mix of hairdresser and archaeologist and is a good example of what I would call a bridge builder. We need more researchers like that.

  1. Abigail Pesta, “On Pins and Needles: Stylist Turns Ancient Hairdo Debate on Its Head,” The Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2013, A1 and A12.

  2. Ms. Stephens’ journal article, Ancient Roman hairdressing: on (hair)pins and needles, is freely available for download on the journal’s website.

  3. The original scientific journals, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and the Journal des sçavans, were created primarily to provide a means of establishing scientific priority, and not necessarily to disseminate research to the public. Many researchers, including Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz actually enciphered their findings using anagrams so that the uninformed could not read them! For more information see Academic Publishing on Wikipedia.