Analysis: welcome to a fascinating world of Bronze Age razors, bog bodies, hirsute Gaelic males, class distinctions and Old-Beardless

By Marion DowdIT Sligo

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The world has become a hairier place since we first heard those ominous words, "Covid-19". The lockdown on barbers, hairdressers and beauticians has led to a flourishing of beards, hair and body fur around the globe. Many people are working from home, allowing a degree of freedom from conventional norms around appearance and personal grooming.

The adult male Homo sapiens has been bearded for almost the entire 50,000 years of the existence of anatomically modern humans. It is feasible that beards may have been trimmed using flint blades during the Stone Age, but shaving the entire face only became possible with the advent of metal.

Razors first appear in the Irish archaeological record about 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age. These slender bronze items turn up in graves containing the cremated bones of adult males, almost certainly included as personal possessions. Though seemingly simple items, razors show signs of great care and repeated repairs. They were valued, curated and perhaps even prized.

From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry show, Emmett Byrne from Butcher Otoko barbers on how to rein in your out of control Covid beard

The reason why they attracted such attention is not difficult to understand. Following tens of thousands of years of being concealed by hair, the Bronze Age male wealthy enough to own a razor could now reveal a bare face. The ability to remove a beard and thus alter one’s personal appearance surely marked out these men as different from their contemporaries. The distinction that razors afforded certain men at this time was something they took to their graves.

Shaving became an intrinsic aspect of religious practices associated with the ritual execution of people - primarily adult males - across northwest Europe during the Iron Age, from approximately 500 BC to the early centuries of the first millennium. The reasons behind these elaborate religious rituals where people were sacrificed and then deposited into bogs remain unknown. We know that societies in many parts of Europe were under enormous pressure at this time from recurring famines, political instability and climatic downturn.

In an effort to alleviate some of these problems, communities may have resorted to making the ultimate sacrifice to their gods. The unfortunate individuals who became the focus of these extreme practices are known as bog bodies. Scientific analyses have illustrated a ritual grammar in the manner by which these people were prepared for a brutal execution, whether in Ireland, England, Denmark or Germany. One form of ceremonial preparation across this vast geographic region was the removal of beards. The world was a much more connected place in late prehistory than we might imagine.

From RTÉ Archives, John Burke reports for RTÉ News on the discovery of a bog body in Co Offaly, believed to be from 2000 BC

Many of the men who were ritually tortured, executed and subsequently deposited into bogs were cleanly shaven at the time of death. Two bog bodies from Weerdinge and Exloërmond in the Netherlands are of adult men who had been shaved shortly before their deaths. The facial hair of Lindow Man, from a bog in the northwest of England, had been cut by a shears a few days before his death. Closer to home, the body of an adult male found in a Meath bog in 2003 was also cleanly shaven at the time of his ritual execution over two thousand years ago. Clonycavan Man, as he is now known, is on display in the National Museum on Kildare Street.

We can never know for sure why the removal of beards was a significant ceremonial rite in the preparation of these Iron Age bog bodies, but it may have been linked to ideas of exposure and revelation. Furthermore, transforming the appearance of the victim may have made the ritual execution easier, creating a distance between the man who once formed part of the community and the person now being sacrificed to the gods.

The early medieval period, when literacy and Christianity reached Ireland, is rich in evidence of the male beard. Manuscripts, high crosses, stone carvings and written accounts all provide glimpses of the hirsute Gaelic male. Beards at this time became an indicator of class distinction. Aristocratic men were clean-shaven or had both a beard and moustache but never a moustache alone. Soldiers and lower-class males wore a long moustache but no beard.

From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, medical historian Alun Withey on the history of beards

The Gaelic fashion for beards was not shared by Welshman Giraldus Cambrensis who, in the late 12th century, referred to the Irish trend for long flowing hair and beards as "uncultivated". His illustration of Diarmait Mac Murrough depicts him sporting a formidable beard. This association between beards and notions of inferiority or savagery was not new. The word barbarian, coined by Greek and Roman writers many centuries earlier, means "the bearded ones".

The cultivation of a beard, or its removal, can signify a man’s religious, political, cultural or sexual affiliation. For instance, Orthodox Muslims and Orthodox Jews never shave and thus their beards are intrinsically linked to their religious beliefs. Facial hair can also be a means of political protest: beard growth became a symbol of resistance amongst political prisoners on hunger strike during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

For many men the decision to grow a beard is a personal choice closely linked to their sense of identity. Conversely, shaving a man’s beard against his will has been used as a form of punishment, violence, torture or to shame. During the Civil War, Darrell Figgis was attacked by three men and had his beard shaved off as punishment for perceived derogatory remarks he had made about the IRA. More recently, in An Evil Cradling, Brian Keenan describes the trauma of having his beard forcibly removed thereby exposing his face for the first time in decades. It was one of the lowest points of his four and a half years as a hostage in Beirut following his kidnap by Islamic Jihad.

It was deemed unlucky for a man to allow a woman to shave his beard as this might cause him to lose his virility and strength

In modern society, beards are often simply a reflection of personal taste and trends, as seen on GAA and rugby pitches around the country. Those interested in pogonology (the study of beards) might argue that the Vikings were the experts when it came to beard fashion. They wore their beards long, plaited, forked or trimmed, and sometimes adorned with paint or beads. Beards were a source of pride and led to nicknames such as Jutting-Beard, Silk-Beard and Old-Beardless.

Traditional beliefs have also developed around the beard. According to Irish folklore, a man should never shave his beard on Good Friday as no blood should be spilled that day. Another widespread tradition was that a man would never suffer from toothache if he promised never to shave on a Sunday. It was also deemed unlucky for a man to allow a woman to shave his beard as this might cause him to lose his virility and strength (a Samson-esque scenario).

Beard growth is one of the first physical signs of departure from adolescence and is therefore a universal signifier of manhood. Beards have been interpreted at various times in the past as symbols of sexual virility, wisdom, eccentricity and satanism. We don’t yet know the future of the beard in post-Covid-19 Ireland. Will some of those returning to work have abandoned their former clean-shaven look? How will the national sale of shaving foam compare with the demand for beard oil? Will dentists report a reduction in cases of toothache amongst adult males? For now, only one thing is certain: the beard is back.

Dr Marion Dowd is an archaeologist specialising in Irish cave archaeology at the School of Science at IT Sligo. She is a former Irish Research Council awardee


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ