Project information

The Marginalisation of the Minor Objects: Combs, The Hidden Treasure of Late Antiquity (300–550 AD)

Project Identification
MUNI/C/0010/2020
Project Period
2/2020 - 12/2020
Investor / Pogramme / Project type
Masaryk University
MU Faculty or unit
Faculty of Arts

This project of master thesis will focus on combs – objects in many ways mistakenly considered as marginal products. Discovered combs, in various contexts all over the historical territories of the Roman Empire, have raised many questions. Yet, lot of them have not received satisfying answers. In order to understand the complexity of the meaning of combs during Late Antiquity – the moment of continuities but also of deep ruptures – it is crucial to interconnect studies from a variety of fields concerned with these mobile objects: archaeology, anthropology, sociology, and art history.

The first matter to face is the historiography: since the first discoveries (19th c.), combs became “minor” objects investigated only as part of their archaeological contexts, or due to their iconography. Following Johannes Overbeck (1886), combs were always considered as objects directly related to women’s toilet. Contrariwise, this project desires to follow the few scholars who have dealt with the various original functions of combs. Moreover, the gender incorrect interpretation should be given up, following the research of Ton Derks and Wouter Vos (2010) confirming the place of combs in man’s world as well.
Therefore, the second intention of this project is to interpret combs not only as personal objects however rather, to present them in their plurality of contexts. They were used as practical objects of toiletry as well as metaphorical ones associated with the purification of the hair, and by extension, the entire body and spirit. Furthermore, by all means, combs were commonly used in Roman households but plausibly, were also a part of everyday life outside the limes, amongst the tribes settled over the territory of the Roman Empire.
At last – the main focus of this project – combs will be analysed at the threshold between Paganism and Christianity. They should be investigated as a part of Christian rituals, particularly baptismal and funeral ones. In these contexts, they mostly kept their deep association with the purification of the body and of the soul right at the liminal moments. As such, as other mobile objects – i.e. pyxides, diptychs etc. – they were also adorned with Christian visual repertoire, closely connected with a death, whether the carnal or spiritual one. Thus, they should be interpreted into the coeval cultural and ritual contexts of Late Antiquity.