The Archaeology of Beards

Avast, gentle readers! The time has come for the long-awaited proper blog post all about the history of facial hair cultivation. Yes, this will indeed be an epic post and I am happy to say that it is entirely inspired by every single one of my male friends, especially those who take their facial hair cultivation seriously. With that, let the posting begin!

I think it’s pretty safe to assume that folks running around pre-Agricultural Revolution were a bit beardy. I’m not necessarily talking about stereotypical Neanderthal beard mess (which isn’t exactly the most accurate thing in the world…) but the origin of the belief that a man wasn’t a man until he started to grow a beard had to begin somewhere. This seems like a good place to start, yes? Unfortunately, folks in these early times didn’t exactly look upon recording of daily beauty regimens as a top priority. Most time was devoted to things like finding food, basic survival, group dynamics (synergy) and general crafts. While beard maintenance was probably part of a hygiene routine, if it was a more integral part of the manly experience it wasn’t recorded. This is fine because the manly men of later eras took up the call and created some truly spectacular facial hair arrangements.

Mesopotamia (Sumer, Akkad, Babylonia and friends)
The gentlemen of the Mesopotamian empires pioneered some truly awe inspiring beards. They were well-known throughout the ancient world for their grooming (proto-manscaping, if you will…) and are instantly identifiable by their meticulously and artfully curled beards. Earlier on though, most men had a tendency to be shaved and/or bald as it fit with the hot climate much like the Egyptians. However, excavations at cities such at Ur have uncovered burials with evidence of extensive and artful braids with gold and ribbons woven into the final hairdo. The Old Akkadian period saw a rise in popularity of meticulously waved hair and beards for men as an alternative to the clean-shaven look. The typical Assyrian reliefs that most people are familiar with prominently feature men with such full beards and mustaches that are intricately waved and curled at the end. There were also distinctive hairstyles for men of various professions to denote their line of work. Doctors, priests and even slaves had distinct hairstyles that would immediately identify them as a member of their class or profession to the general public.

The men of ancient Egypt are another group who are instantly identifiable by their grooming habits. Because of the extremely hot temperatures that tend to happen in Egypt, it was standard practice for both men and women to have short hair. Wealthier men and royalty would commonly be entirely clean shaven and wear elaborate wigs instead. The Egyptians were very much into hair removal, as both men and women preferred a very clean look. There were all sorts of hair removal creams and devices to help them achieve their beauty ideal. That said, they also had a knack for extreme detail when depicting folks from other parts of the world with different hairdos and *gasp* beards! Their attention to detail is very useful to archaeologists and historians because it helps us identify all the different cultures that the Egyptians interacted with! Later periods in Egyptian history were characterized by the influences of the ruling Libyans, Greeks, Romans and Persians. They brought a particularly beardy way of life with them that was eventually adopted into Egyptian life.

Greek men were another beardy bunch. In Greek culture, as in many other cultures, the sign that a boy had truly become a man was that he was able to grow facial hair. Men took pride in their beards and made it a point to keep them groomed and manicured and this attention to detail was in turn translated into their art. Greek men can be easily identified by their dark beards while younger Greek males will be beardless. There are some exceptions here, as various deities can be adult males but also clean shaven. On the whole though, any proper adult Greek man will have a beard and be pretty proud of this fact.

The Romans! Yes, the Romans also had a fondness for distinctive grooming styles. Roman men were widely known for their preference to be clean shaven well through the Republic and into the Empire. Once Rome started to have some awesome emperors, facial hair trends began to change. Nero (54-68 CE) made it a point to adopt a rather fancy hair style and eventually added sideburns to complete the look. However, it wasn’t until Hadrian (117-138 CE) rolled in from Spain that beards made a full return to Roman culture. Being the first of the ‘Bearded Emperors’, Hadrian’s signature short beard brought relief to the faces of men across the empire and they seem to have quickly followed suit. Even after the time of the ‘Bearded Emperors’, beards and facial hair in general remained popular among men in the Roman empire. (Images: Hadrian [left] and Nero [right])

Roman frontiers (Celtiberia, Gaul and those weird northern places)
Many of the cultures that the Romans encountered had something that the Romans did not: beards. And I’m talking about serious beards here. Beards that were long enough to be braided in several ways and looked rather menacing on the battlefield. Again, this was part of the whole ‘adult men have beards’ cultural element that we have seen throughout the Mediterranean and Near East. The Romans found these beards odd and often wrote about them as a distinguishing feature of whatever group they had run into in their many adventures in border expansion. Some folks were into braiding beards, some not. Some of the more hardcore Gauls and Celtic peoples took things a step further and chose to enhance their hair and beards with lime, which would eventually bleach the hair and create some pretty awesome displays. Some groups weren’t so much into beards, but they made up for it with serious mustaches. Fearsome mustaches that inspired fear on the battlefields of Europe and the UK.

The men of England and the mighty British Empire were also pioneers of facial hair, creating some of the most awesome and ridiculous displays of beard and mustache art that continue to be imitated today. Kings were almost always the trendsetters in the beard world and as times and kings came and went, so did preferences for facial hair. Sometimes there were simply beards, sometimes there were elaborately waxed mustaches and sometimes there were mutton chops big enough to take over Tokyo. In this area, I will simply let the beards speak for themselves.

Modern beards
And then there’s this guy.

And there you have it! A brief look at the archaeology (ok, mostly history) behind beards and other forms of facial hair cultivation and management.


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