Turner-Pearson, Katherine (2007-08). The search for ancient hair: a scientific approach to the probabilities and recovery of unattached hair in archaeological sites. Master's Thesis. Thesis uri icon


  • A recent upsurge exists of archaeologists using ancient hair as a research tool, with new uses of this previously discarded archaeological material being introduced annually. Human hair deteriorates extremely slowly, and since the average modern human sheds approximately one hundred hairs per day, there should be copious amounts of hair debris left behind after humans leave a site; it is just a matter of how much of the hair survives in the archaeological environment. Most loose hair recovered from archaeological sites, however, is found fortuitously and in many cases, because archaeologists were not actively searching for ancient hair, it is possible they tainted the hair they later tested in ways that compromised their data, or more importantly contaminated their samples with modern hair and did not test ancient hair at all. No standardized method has previously been established for searching for ancient hair in an archaeological site. This paper considers (a) a method of soil extraction in the field that avoids contamination with modern hair and elements that might hinder later test data; (b) the processing of samples in the laboratory while continuing sample integrity; (c) identification of the types of soils and environments that are most favorable to hair preservation; and (d) an examination of the relevance of hair extraction from sites including the practicality and research potential. This paper examines five archaeological sites, using three different methods of hair extraction, examining the pros and cons of each. This should enable future researchers to find a method that works best for their particular site. It also analyzes the soil chemistry of the sites in order to study the soil and hair survival relationship, so that scientists can better determine which soils hold the best potential for hair survival. Laboratory methods that avoid contamination of the samples are also outlined in order to help researchers keep sample integrity after leaving the archaeological site.

publication date

  • August 2007