Wooden combs from the Roman fort at Vechten: the bodily appearance of soldiers

A.M.J. Derks, W.K. Vos

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Excavations in the late 19th century and surveys carried out in the 1970s have produced 12 boxwood combs from the Roman fort at Vechten (NL). They are to be considered waste material that was dumped in the river Rhine which in the Roman period ran just north of the camp. In this article, this set of artefacts is first discussed. It is argued that such boxwood combs were a regular phenomenon in military and urban settlements of the Roman period. Though in Roman archaeology combs have been associated foremost with women and female beauty, the finds from the fort at Vechten suggest that in this particular case they were used first of all by the male population of the local garrison, for combing their hair, for cleaning scalp and hair from dust, dandruff, and parasites, and perhaps for trimming their beards. Through an analogy with early modern and contemporary state armies, it is finally argued that the combs played a role in the creation and maintenance of an imposed military culture aimed at the strengthening of group cohesion and an esprit de corps. In contrast with the heroic warrior, the bodily appearance of the Roman soldier may thus have been prescribed by rules that were set by army commanders rather than generated by personal choice.

Keywords: boxwood combs, Roman army, gender, corporeal body, hygiene, esprit de corps
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-77
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Archaeology in the Low Countries
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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