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Roman Ear Cleaner, Tweezers Unearthed in England

The ear cleaning tool looks similar to a modern Q-tip but is made entirely out of metal

Roman tweezers found during bridge construction (Ebbsfleet Development Corporation)
smithsonianmag.com

Archaeologists excavating a bridge construction site in Ebbsfleet Garden City, southwest of London, recently discovered a set of artifacts that makes the residents of the Roman Empire seem a little less grandiose and a lot more human: The find—essentially the ancients’ equivalent of a modern-day grooming kit—includes an ear cleaning tool and a pair of tweezers.

As Chris Hunter reports for Kent Online, the items were among several finds unearthed near the site of the new Springhead Bridge. The roughly 2,000-year-old tweezers are remarkably similar to modern tweezers. The 1,600- to 2,000-year-old ear cleaner, on the other hand, resembles a Q-tip but is made entirely out of metal.

Researchers also found a piece of construction timber that was likely dropped into the river by an individual traveling on a Roman barge, as well as pottery fragments believed to date to the Saxon era. The wood is currently being preserved in wax by specialists—a process that will take up to a year.

For now, no one knows where the Roman grooming items will end up, but Julia Gregory, director of projects with Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, says she hopes the artifacts remain nearby.

“Ebbsfleet Garden City and the surrounding area has a fascinating history,” explains Gregory says in a press release, “and while the work goes on to document the items found here it would be lovely to find them a permanent home here in the Garden City at some point in the future.”

The region has more than enough history to fill a museum: According to Hunter, it was the site of a settlement called Vagniacis during the heyday of Roman Britain. The Ebbsfleet River, now the site of the bridge where the artifacts were found, was used to connect Watling Street, a major Roman road and trade route, to the River Thames. During the 14th century, what is now Ebbsfleet was a stopover point for pilgrims traveling to Canterbury, and in more recent centuries, the area served as an important site for shipping and watercress cultivation.

Beyond Ebbsfleet’s own history, the finds emphasize the Romans’ obsession with beauty and hygiene. Cleanliness and style were status symbols for the ancients, a fact that differentiated them from many other cultural groups in Europe. Unkempt or unruly hair, as well as bad hygiene, was said to reflect poorly on an individual’s inner state.

Per Susan Stewart of History Today, Roman women had exceedingly high beauty standards. They dedicated a significant amount of time and energy to the pursuit of flawless skin, perfect hair and the most flattering makeup. Objects such as tweezers and makeshift Q-tips likely played a part in these beauty routines.

Men were also held to a high standard, reports the University of Kent. Some, including Emperor Augustus, shaved every day. Others had their body hair removed with tweezers. Still, there were limits to the bounds of acceptability: Plucking armpit hair, say ancient sources, was fine, but plucking leg hair was considered too effeminate.

In any case, it appears a pair of tweezers may be as much a symbol of Rome as the imperial eagle.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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