Ear spools

Wooden ear-spools, Kikuyu people, Kenya

Metal ear-spools, Oxford, UK

[b]Top:[/b] Collected by William S. Routledge in 1908 and donated by John Harrington in 1951; 1951.10.21[br][b]Bottom:[/b] Donated by Chris Tree in 2001; 2001.73.6–.10Top: Collected by William S. Routledge in 1908 and donated by John Harrington in 1951; 1951.10.21
Bottom: Donated by Chris Tree in 2001; 2001.73.6–.10
Earplugs can be made of a variety of material. Here are two sets, one made of wood from Kenya and the other made of metal from Oxford in the UK. These ornaments are more accurately known as 'ear-spools' or, in modern parlance, 'flesh tunnels', due to their tubular and hollow shape. In each case the sets are used to gradually increase the size of the piercing in the ear lobe. Once the piercing has stretched enough to accommodate the smallest spool, this is then replaced by one with a larger diameter. The process continues until the largest size is reached. Stretching in this way, over months and years, helps to minimise tissue damage and pain.

Large ear ornaments of this kind are an ancient form of body modification dating back at least 4000 years. Ancient Chinese, Egyptian and Mesoamerican cultures wore them as a sign of high status. Tutankhamun, for example, had a stretched ear piercing. Among the Aztecs and Mayans the most elite individuals were permitted to wear ones made of expensive materials such as jade or gold. Inca noblemen of Peru also wore engraved ear spools of gold, silver, copper which reached up to two inches in diameter, inspiring the Spanish nickname for the Inca people: orejones meaning 'big ears'.

The wooden ear-spools from Kenya are flared at each end to keep them in place. They were worn by young girls, married women and male warriors. A Yorkshireman trader and hunter in Kenya at the turn of the 20th century, John Boyes, recalled how some men competed with each other over the size of their ear-piercing and even sought to maintain the degree of stretching by passing a stick through one ear, bending it around the neck and passing the other end through the other ear. Kikuyu men and women also augmented their large lobe ornaments by wearing up to five metal or bead rings in piercings in the top part of the ear. Kikuyu boys did not wear the large wooden spools. After circumcision and the ritual piercing of their ears, they wore solid disc plugs during their convalescence and then ornaments made of strips of banana fibre after that.

The five metal ear-spools were donated to the Museum by Chris Tree, a body piercer based in Oxford. Mr Tree taught himself how to pierce using instruction videos purchased from the USA. At the time of the donation in 2001 he said that only ten years before, in the early 1990s, he was one of as little as twenty people making a living from piercing in the UK and back then people's reactions to his own piercings were usually negative ranging from avoidance to shock to fright. By 2001 however, he said his piercings seldom invoked a reaction and that the piercing business was (and still is) thriving in part due to the popularization of piercing by musicians and celebrities.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England