Museum Secrets

The Ancient Art of Manscaping

December 30, 2020 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins Season 1 Episode 3
Museum Secrets
The Ancient Art of Manscaping
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, host Lucie Dawkins reveals the Ancient Greek art of styling pubic hair, and why it gives us important clues to understanding ancient sculptures.

1. Cast of the Terme Boxer – View this online
2. Cast of Apollo – View this online
3. Painted cast of Augustus – View this online
4. The Metropolitan Museum kouros – Find out more
5. Cast of the Kritios Boy – View this online

If you want to take a closer look at the sculptures in this episode, you can find them at the links above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer and Presenter: Lucie Dawkins

About Museum Secrets: The curators at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology have been recording bite-sized tales of the wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, life of a museum. We can’t wait to share them with you! Join us every weekday for 3 weeks, from 28 December onwards, for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: This is Museum Secrets from the Ashmolean.  I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every day I’ll be bringing you a bitesized undercover story from our collections. Step in through the front doors, and join me for some joyful, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre tales hidden in the objects. We will be going behind the scenes and beyond the labels, into dark corners of the storerooms and into the minds of the curators

Today, we are heading back to gallery 14, the cast gallery. 

In the last episode, curator Jim Harris revealed the secrets of detachable genitalia in cast collections. They have a lot to tell us about the social history of prudishness and art. I would recommend having a listen if you haven’t already.

But there are even more reasons that you might find scholars, curators, and archaeologists carefully examining the crotches of ancient sculptures. Today’s story is all about the ancient art of pubic hair. 

The cast gallery at the Ashmolean is a room stuffed wall to wall with plaster replicas of famous Greek and Roman sculptures. And as soon as you step through the doors, you will realise that you are surrounded by lots of naked men.

And that’s because being naked was a top leisure activity for an Ancient Greek man. Less so for an Ancient Greek woman, who was generally encouraged to cover up and stay at home, but if you were a man it was a normal part of your day to hang out with your mates in your birthday suit.

The reason for this was that the social centre of Ancient Greek life was the gymnasium, a place to exercise, socialise, and talk about philosophy. Gymnasium, means, in Greek, a place for getting naked. There was a no-clothes policy, with the exception of an accessory called a kynodesme, or ‘dog tie’. It was a kind Ancient Greek high-performance sports underwear, a thin leather string which neatly tied up anything you didn’t want to get in the way. There is actually somebody wearing a kynodesme in the cast gallery - he’s an exhausted looking boxer, sitting down as if taking a breather between rounds.

Now, if you aren’t wearing any clothes, but you do want to be fashionable, you have to work with everything you’ve got left. As a result, the Greeks liked to style their hair. 

All their hair.

And we know this, because statues and paintings of Ancient Greek men show an amazing range of what are known as pubic moustaches. There are fishtails, starbursts, leaf shapes, diamonds. Some wear their moustaches cropped short, and others luxuriously long and curly. Look twice in the cast gallery, and you will see some serious manscaping. 

Actually, a pubic moustache is probably one of the first things you see when you walk into the Ashmolean. Right in the middle of the atrium, pointing regally into the museum, is a  massive figure of the god Apollo from a temple at Olympia. He’s sporting a flat-topped tache, with immaculately pointed tips. 

We also know a bit about depilatory techniques of the time. While the sophisticated Ancient Egyptians had got round to inventing waxing, the Greek writer Aristophanes mentions either shaving or, more agonisingly, singeing off body hair.

These pubic moustaches are surprisingly useful pieces of information when looking at Greek sculptures. Apart from giving us an insight into the social habits and fashion standards of an ancient society, they can also help us date the sculpture.

The Greeks liked to make freestanding statues of men. This kind of sculpture is called a kouros, or ‘youth’. For about 100 years, between 600 and 500 BC, most of them look pretty similar to each other - marching forward, one foot in front of the other, arms glued to their sides, gaze fixed to the front. Because the kouroi conform to type, it can be tricky to date them exactly. So you have to look at all the clues available to try and narrow down a window in which they might have been made. 

Now, pubic moustaches, like every other fashion trend, changed with the times. It’s not an exact art, but one piece of evidence that archaeologists might use to hypothesise when a sculpture was made is to compare its pubes to other figures which they already know the dates for. 

And there are even more revelations. Most people, when they think of Greek and Roman sculpture, think of shining monochrome white marbles. But in fact, they aren’t supposed to be white at all. 

Originally, they were painted from head to toe. And we’re talking full garish technicolour and gold leaf. The problem is that these paints are not very durable, and tend to fade and flake off when exposed to the elements over time. And our misconceptions about how these sculptures ought to appear are largely down to an influential 18th century German archaeologist called Johann Winckelmann. He popularised the idea that pure white classical marbles are the embodiment of beauty. This was, of course, a position with racist foundations. For a long time, it was normal practice for collectors and museums to scrub off all the paint traces and reveal the white stone underneath.

Even so, there are still a few sculptures left with flecks of paint intact. With the development of  advanced imaging technology, it’s recently become possible to reconstruct the original colours. There are in fact a couple of casts in the Ashmolean with the paints recreated, and you can see how magnificently gaudy they would have been - nothing like the serene white sculptures we have come to think of.

So that, of course, begs a crucial question.

What colour were the pubic moustaches?

Well, that takes us to New York, to the Metropolitan Museum, home to a particularly interesting kouros, who wears his pubic hair in an elegant fishtail shape. Analysis using ultraviolet radiation has revealed that this fishtail was once electric blue. 

This shade of blue was made from a substance called azurite. But the Greeks didn’t have a source of azurite - it was only found in the Sinai desert and in parts of Egypt. The New York kouros’ pubes are therefore evidence of international trade routes between Northern Africa and Greece. 

What a lot we can discover by lowering our gaze.

And even then, that’s not all. 

Around 490 BC, these kouroi sculptures suddenly began to change from the rigid posture that had been fixed for the previous hundred years or so. The reasons for this artistic revolution are still a subject of debate, but the fact is, in the space of only a decade, kouroi became more relaxed and naturalistic. They broke out of their stiff, striding poses, and started to look like real, sinuous human bodies. 

The first signal of this change was that instead of spreading their weight equally between the front and back foot, sculptors began to make kouroi shift onto one leg. This pose is called contrapposto, and the asymmetrical distribution of weight turns the spine in to an s-like curve, tips the shoulders, and shows all the muscles in the body working together as a system. A tiny change in posture, and suddenly the sculpture looks more alive. One of the earliest examples of this is a kouros called the Kritios Boy, from Athens, and there is also a copy of him in the cast gallery. 

You can see the contrapposto pose in the pelvis - whereas the old-style kouroi had dead level hips, the new ones had one tilted higher than the other. It’s also particularly obvious if you look behind the kouros - one buttock is relaxed, while the other is tensed.

The earliest sculptures in this period of change have the smallest of tilts in their hips, and as time went on, this became more and more pronounced. So again, if you want to work out a date for a Greek kouros, it’s wise to look at its pelvis and bum. 

Many Greek sculptures only survive as fragments of the torso. As long as you can see the crotch, you’ve got what you need to make an educated guess about roughly when it was made. 

So next time you are in the cast gallery at the Ashmolean, don’t be shy. There’s a lot to find out if you are brave enough to look. 

If you want to take a look at some of the sculptures in the episode today, you’ll find links to them in the podcast notes.  

Join us tomorrow, for a story about having faith that things will get better. If you enjoyed this episode, please remember to rate, review, and share the podcast. It helps other people find us.