Posts Tagged 'artifacts'

Object: Roman Double-Sided Comb

Accession Number: C/1948/6/001

Object: Double-Sided Comb

Culture: Roman

Date: 30 BC-641

Materials: Boxwood

C_1948_6_001 copy

Figure 1. Roman Comb from the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. C/1948/6/001.

This week’s object is a double-sided comb from Egypt, near Luxor. Although this artifact was excavated from Egypt, it is identified as Roman due to the Roman occupation of Egypt between 30 BC-641 AD.  This means the age of the comb is somewhere around 1,400-2,000 years old! Although combs of this style are seen through multiple centuries, we can determine that this comb is Roman due to it’s location, approximate age, and the material its carved from: boxwood.

Boxwood is one of many materials used to create double-sided combs. Combs made from ivory or bone are also common. However, boxwood was the cheapest of these and was used almost exclusively to create the Roman army’s standard-issued combs for their soldiers. (1) Three combs made from boxwood uncovered in the “Cave of the Pool”, near the Dead Sea are believed to have come from the early Roman period. (2) These combs bear a striking resemblance in shape, design, and material to the collection’s comb. It’s very possible that the collection’s comb belonged to a soldier in the Roman army.

historicalwarris

Figure 2.  Original illustration by Brian Delf.

Now you may be wondering, why did the Roman army issue a double-sided comb to their soldiers as part of their standard gear? The answer has less to do with making sure their soldiers looked their best, and more to do with making sure their soldiers itched a lot less! Living in cramped conditions with your platoon, with few opportunities to bathe or shave, left many of the Roman soldiers susceptible to head lice. The fine toothed side of the comb was meant to catch and remove adult lice and eggs, while the broader toothed comb was meant to tidy the hair and remove tangles.

Unfortunately, Lice have been piggy-backing on humanity’s migration across the world  for thousands of years. In fact, during the excavation of a cave site in Israel, tests performed on hair samples from an individual who died there found remnants of lice and their eggs dating back 9,000 years! (2)

janmiense.jpg

Figure 3.  Double-sided Combs carried on much later than the Roman Period. “Allegory of Vanity” by Jan Miense Molenaer, 1633.

While lice combs have proven to be a tried and true method, more creative remedies have been used. The practice of shaving the head and body hair to prevent infestation was common. This method was popular with the Egyptian elite who used elaborate wigs and powders to stay stylish and louse-free. However, other methods included mixing cresol powder, sulfur, mercury powder, and even kerosene into a salve that would be spread on the hair or body. (2)

While these methods may have offered temporary relief, the results of these caustic concoctions could create more problems than the lice themselves! For this reason the most popular method for lice removal during the last 3,500 years has been maintenance through a fine toothed comb. Many varieties of lice combs can be found throughout the world. In fact, head lice have been so closely tied to our ancestors lives that by the 15th century giving a lice comb was considered to be quite the romantic gift! (3)

Comb,_1400s_AD,_French,_boxwood_-_Cleveland_Museum_of_Art_-_DSC08507

Figure 4. 15th Century French Double-Sided Comb. The reverse reads “Pour Bien” meaning ” for your comfort”. This lice comb was probably a gift between sweet hearts.

So next time you have an itch, be thankful you’re not getting a lice comb for Valentines Day!

((Christina J. Naruszewicz))

Sources:

1- Dowdle, Elizabeth. “Archaeology of Daily Life: Double-sided Comb”, John Hopkins Archaeological Museum, accessed Oct 9, 2017, http://archaeologicalmuseum.jhu.edu/the-collection/object-stories/archaeology-of-daily-life/female-beauty/double-sided-comb

2- Mumcuoglu, Kosta Y., and Gideon Hadas, “Remains in a Louse Comb from the Roman Period Excavated in the Dead Sea Region”, Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 61, no. 2 (2011), 223-229

3- Morton, Ella. “Some of History’s Most Beautiful Combs Were Made for Lice Removal”, Atlas Obscura, June 21, 2016, accessed Oct 9, 2017. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/some-of-historys-most-beautiful-combs-were-made-for-lice-removal

 

Ceremonial Phurba (Kila) Dagger

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Figure 1. Phurba Dagger within the Sam Noble Ethnology Collection. E/1958/26/001

E/1958/26/001

Ceremonial Dagger: Phurba, Kila

Tibetan or Nepalese

Asia

ca. 18th Century

Bronze, Turquoise Stone

The Tibetan Phurba or Kila (in Sanskrit)  is a ceremonial dagger traditionally used in Tibetan Buddhism for tantric rituals. The Phurba (pronounced Pur-pa) can be fashioned out a of a variety of materials, including: wood, bone, glass, clay, horn and even crystal. (1) See figure 3. to see an example of a crystal phurba dagger on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Despite the array of materials used in the creation of phurbas, these ceremonial daggers have a distinct blade which makes them easily identifiable. The unusual blade of the phurba dagger is designed to have three edges. This gives the blade the appearance similar to a stake used to tether objects to the ground, much like the pegs you see today to secure tents. It has been theorized that this stake design is inspired by earlier Tibetan ceremonies, where shamans tethered sacrificial animals to the ground. However, other researchers debate its shape is meant to represent the pegs used to tether a horse, to keep it from wandering. Whatever its design origins, a phurba dagger is never used to stake anything physical. Its power resides in its spiritual ability to tranfix spirits or demons to the earth. (2)

 

Tibetexpedition, Fürst von Gautsa

Figure 2. Photograph of a Tibetan Shaman. Notice the Phurba dagger in his left hand. Photo by Klause Ernst, Tibet, 1938

Indeed, the dagger’s three sided blade usually has a dull edge, proving ineffective in battle. However, Phurbas have grown in popularity in recent years as tourist items, meditative objects, and have even been adopted as a weapon in some schools of marital arts. An example of the phurba dagger being used non-traditionally as a martial arts weapon can be seen here.

Due to it’s wide use in Tibet and some parts of India, the phurba dagger and its

met

Figure 3. A Crystal Dagger on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 15th Century. Image Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

ceremonial origins may have evolved from the ancient and native Bon religion in Tibet. (3)  This argument suggests that the dagger always served a spiritual weapon, intended to tether negative spirits in place so that they can be driven from the sites of sacred ceremonies, or to force demons from the sites where shrines will be constructed. (4) In fact, the phurba’s ability to bind spirits was put to use in building thirteen Buddhist temples and stupas within Tibet. It was believed that before Buddhism could be successfully introduced into Tibet, the wild spirits within the region needed to be subdued. The building of Buddhist temples in the area served as both the symbolic and physical tethers binding the goddess of the region, limiting her powers. (5)

 

Many elaborate daggers depict three different faces on the pommel of the dagger. This particular Phurba dagger appears to show the deity, Vajrakilaya, a wrathful but powerful deity of Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrakilaya is the over thrower of obstacles. By meditating on the forces that work against the user, Vajrakilaya removes the interference to bliss, happiness, and enlightenment. This tantric practice was eventually absorbed into all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and the phurba dagger serves as the primary object of focus during the mediation process. (6) Unfortunately, the details about this ceremony and the phurba’s exact role have been hidden away. These teachings are left to the understanding of the most devout followers and their instructors.

vajkildorjezhonu

Figure 4. Depiction of Vajrakilaya as a ceremonial dagger.

Footnotes:

1. Ryan Hudson, “Phurba with Three Faces of Vajrakila Buddha,”  http://www.tibetanculture.weai.columbia.edu/phurba-with-three-faces/. (accessed August 16, 2017)

2. Georgette Meredith, “The “Phurbu”: The Use and Symbolism of the Tibetan Magic Dagger”, History of Religions 6, no. 3 (1967): 246.

3. Meredith, “The “Phurbu”, 240.

4. Meredith, “The Phurbu”, 246.

5. Janet Gyatso, “Down with the Demoness: Reflections on a Feminine Ground in Tibet”, The Tibet Journal 12, no.4 (1987): 41.

6. Robert Beer, The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs (Boston: Shambala Publishing, 1999), 246.

 

Additional Reading:

 

The Tibetan Book of the Dead. “Ceremonial Objects.” Virginia University. Last Modified 2017. Accessed August 16, 2017. https://www.lib.virginia.edu/exhibits/dead/ceremon.html

 

((Christina J. Naruszewicz))


Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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