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My Relationship With Dead Things

photography by Edana Isobel Jamora & words by Lauren Dundler

ESSAY/

 

“If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree. ” 


― Michael Crichton


 

I am one of those sorts of people who spends an inordinate amount of type preoccupied with dead things. Let me clarify that – I am not talking about an obsession with death or an unhealthy level of morbidity. I neither fear nor welcome death. I am aware of it, but I am not overly interested in it. Simply, it is what it is.

What I refer to is a moment of realisation. The moment when I realised that what I seem to be spending a significant portion of my life thinking about is two dead things: hair and history. Often simultaneously.

 

When I was quite young, hair was the concern of much pondering – my hair especially, but not exclusively. My hair was white-blonde and impossibly fine. I imagine that if my mother let it grow it would have caused her angst and we would have fought epic battles with a comb as her weapon of choice. Cleverly, she did not let it grow out and she kept my hair diligently shaped in a bob.

Now, this particular hairstyle probably would not have had an influence on my cognitions or developing sense of selfhood if it weren’t for another hairstyle that was on the scene: my sister’s hair. My sister had glorious hair. It was long, wavy and the most exquisite colour- strawberry blonde. I have distinct childhood memories of visits to the hair salon together and the hairdresser would never fail to coo and cry in utmost envy when they saw my sister’s hair.

 “People pay hundreds of dollars for this colour!”

“I have never seen such beautiful hair before in my life!”  

I would sit, waiting patiently, for my turn in the chair, waiting to hear similar compliments. Surely my hair was beautiful in its own way, I would convince myself. It was the colour of gold and sunshine and surely that would resonate with a hairdresser, too! But when I sat in the chair, covered in that itchy cape, nothing would be spoken. The hairdresser would dutifully resign herself to cutting boring hair into a boring haircut. I grew to hate that haircut. I loathed my bob. My sister’s hair grew to be long, soft and beautiful and my hair remained in the constant state of regimented plainness.

When I was nine or so I became convinced that my hair could be just as beautiful as my sister’s, and so I persuaded my mother to let me grow it out of the bob. I just so desperately wanted long hair. She allowed me to and I set about letting my hair become the way I had always dreamed it would be.

And for a long time it was. Long, wavy and soft. I experimented with bleach and bobby pins. My hair became the type of hair that hairdressers commented on and I would think of that little girl with a bob sitting in that itchy cape. Like I am thinking about her now as I have just booked in with my hairdresser to cut all my hair off –  to the shoulders. Bring back the bob.  

This level of concern about my own hair is perhaps not too uncommon. Most people like their hair to look or feel or smell a certain way. We spend time and money achieving the desired effect, and if we lose our hair or damage it in a certain way – we get rather upset. And when you examine the rationality behind these feelings, I question the validity of my own hair obsession, a natural response would be to feel a bit silly – considering that hair is just a collection of dead cells.

If you were unaware of this notion, you may be a little surprised and perhaps distrustful because hasn’t my essay so far been about a preoccupation with the growth of hair? Well, the growth of hair is actually related to the blood vessels connected with the follicle, which is what feeds the hair root and keeps it growing. The material we see beyond our scalp, however, is composed of dead cells and are technically not growing. Hair, simply put, is a dead thing.

Despite my awareness of the existential state of hair, I still have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about it. And it’s not the only dead thing that has occupied my thought processes in my life - I am actually an historian and whilst I suppose you could say that my primary point of interest is the past, dead things – especially dead people – constitute an awful lot of what we consider the past to be.           

My interest in history emerged at a later stage of my life. A post-bob period, if you will. Perhaps my thought processes before the age of ten were so preoccupied with the first type of dead things that there was no chance for history to get any attention. Or perhaps, and more likely, it was an issue of exposure to the subject which did not occur until I had started secondary school. Either way, my engagement with the second type of dead things came in the first half of my adolescence. Post-bob and with bright pink hair.  

What struck me first were the differences between the modern world and antiquity. As a child I had always had a love for the fantasy genre and the strange 7th century landscapes of Homer 's Iliad appeared to be the closest thing to a fantasy novel brought to life. There were different gods and philosophies and the cultural anecdotes of civilisations like Sparta or Gallic Europe appeared so utterly foreign, novel and undeniably exciting. The stories of battles and outrageous personalities like Agrippina the Elder, or Queen Bouddica of the Iceni, appealed to me as fabulous narrative constructions and I found myself swept up in the image of the world as I had always wanted it to be: different.

I never imagined that a decade on that I would still be immersed in the study of Ancient History. I didn’t think I would still be seeing the world through 8th century eyes. But over this period of time my relationship with the second type of dead things has changed considerably. Firstly, I have become more adept and knowledgeable in my field – as one would hope considering I am graduating from a five year degree and the comparison I am making is with a fourteen year old version with myself with bright pink hair – but I have also found myself connecting with history for different reasons than what initially attracted me to the subject.

Throughout my education I have studied many different epochs, civilisations and events and what continues to surprise me, sometimes more so than others, is how similar the modern world is to antiquity. From a cursory glance the world looks very different, novel and unusual. But when one delves deeper in research and analysis the image is oddly familiar – there is a sense of connection, common understanding and continuation. I still see the world through 8th century eyes, but sometimes I see the 8th century in my own contextual landscape – where the influences of the culture and civilisations of antiquity are utterly interwoven with our 21st century identities and existences.

History resonates with me so strongly because I feel it has taught me more about myself as a member of the human race. To me, the study of history is the task of recollecting and reinterpreting the collective memory of humanity, in hopes of understanding better what constitutes being a human: why we say the things we say; why our cognitions are shaped in certain ways; why we treat some people better than others; why we live every single aspect of our entire lives the way we do. In his novel Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie aptly summarises my point, “I am the sum total of everything that went before me.”

But whilst history is significant and we can learn so much from it, it is certainly a dead thing. Or, a collection of dead things, if you will. The people, from King Numa to Emperor Nero, are truly dead. Some died in extraordinary ways, in volcanic eruptions or through ingesting suspicious funghi, whilst others died of diseases we now possess the knowledge to cure. Most died on battle fields in military engagements that were a constant part of most civilisation’s political lives. Many also died before their lives could begin, through practices of infanticide we can observe across many cultures in the ancient world. Whether an unusual or commonplace death, all the slaves, heroes, women, men, children of the ancient world are undeniably dead people; dead things. The animals that they utilised – whether by pulling a plough or by carrying men into battle – have died too. We can probably assume that due to the rates of deforestation post-industrialisation that the trees that filled their forests are also dead. The world as they experienced it, the landscapes and atmosphere, would be utterly different to the pace and sights of the 21st century and that is something I am accepting of.

But history, much like hair, is a part of a live process. Beneath our scalps there are constant instances of biological activity stimulating the growth of our hair, allowing me to transition from a child with a bob, to a teenager with bright pink hair, and then finally to a young adult with a bob once more. The average hair growth rate is one centimetre a month and during that ongoing process of growth we actively change our hair. We experiment with colour and cut, with style and product. This undeniably dead thing is always immersed in live processes of change and growth.

History is connected to live processes also, much like the growth of hair – that is, through the modern engagement with the ancient world. The study of history is a process that involves as much as our current context as it does the period we are examining and with every new perspective, theory and research undertaking, we are bringing history back to life and into the modern world. Even though we try to avoid it, we retroject and reshape the historical narratives we examine with our own biases, personalities and the concerns that we are faced with in the 21st century. We view the history of women in the ancient world with a perspective utterly shaped by the Feminist Movement. We analyse the issue of slavery in antiquity with an awareness of the social and ethical implications of slavery in the modern world. We judge the spread of empires and colonisation with the obvious knowledge of how colonisation and imperialism shaped the 21st century, especially in countries like Australia. The modern writing of history cannot escape this dynamic – the process will involve the ancient world and our world meeting and collaborating to create a continual narrative of the experiences of the human race.  

As a historian I find myself incredibly privileged to be a part of this process because of the undeniable cultural value that history and its study can bring to all of our lives. I feel it my duty now that I am aware of what history has to offer us –  because of all the richness it has brought to my own life – to keep my focus on this dead thing and to keep it constantly a part of the process of growth, life and change.

My current research is, funnily enough, about hair. Particularly concerning the facial hair of the Emperor Hadrian, who ruled the Roman Empire from 117-39 AD. Hadrian was the first Roman Emperor to sport a beard and depicted himself in imperial imagery with a beard, a choice which I consider to be a result of his interest in Greek culture, as beards were typically worn by Greeks and not Romans.  This massive undertaking has allowed me to unite the dead things that have always occupied my mind, even if beards caused 2nd century AD Greek philosopher Epictetus, to ponder "Is there anything less useful than the hair on the chin?"

Hair and history are both dead things. But they are both connected to life processes, rich in growth and change. My understanding of the importance and ubiquity of change has finally allowed me to surrender the idea of myself having long hair like my sister did when we were children, and that’s why I can return – many, many years later – to a bob.