If you don't normally think of barbers as academics, then meet Janet Stephens. She's a hairdresser from Baltimore who spends her free time trying to recreate the hairstyles of ancient history and figure out how they did their 'dos. The hairstyle she saw on a bust of a Roman empress was particularly challenging, and to her publishing some original research in a scientific journal.
She tried to re-create the 'do on a mannequin. "I couldn't get it to hold together," she says. Turning to the history books for clues, she learned that scholars widely believed the elaborately teased, towering and braided styles of the day were wigs.
She didn't buy that. Through trial and error she found that she could achieve the hairstyle by sewing the braids and bits together, using a needle. She dug deeper into art and fashion history books, looking for references to stitching.
In 2005, she had a breakthrough. 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."
The single-prong pins couldn't have held the intricate styles in place. But a needle and thread could. It backed up her hair hypothesis.
In 2007, she sent her findings to the Journal of Roman Archaeology. "It's amazing how much chutzpah you have when you have no idea what you're doing," she says. "I don't write scholarly material. I'm a hairdresser."
John Humphrey, the journal's editor, was intrigued. "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," he says.