Image of Queen Cleopatra (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Welcome, Beauty Gurus!
You might have found yourself here due to your love of eye-shadow palettes, highlighting palettes, matte liquid lipsticks, full coverage foundation, luxury primers or contour kits. Twenty first century girls and guys might not realize where our beauty trends originate from, but, I’m here to lay down the truth on who blessed the modern world with the classic bold winged liner look. Humour aside, the ancient Egyptians used cosmetics for a variety of reasons, and it was also a variety of people who used cosmetics. It was not just nobility and those of high status that were able to use make-up in ancient Egypt, but even those of lower status would wear cosmetics on a regular basis. Make-up was also able to be freely used by both sexes. It was not something specific to women. Men would wear cosmetics just as openly, and voluntarily as the women would (Hayes, 1990). This web page will provide you with some information regarding what kind of cosmetics were used in ancient Egypt, when they were used, and how they were used. There’s also many reasons as to why they used cosmetics, as it was not just for personal appearance and beautification purposes. If you are interested in all the who’s, what’s, when’s, where’s and why’s of cosmetics in ancient Egypt, then keep on reading!
Cosmetics have been around a lot longer than you probably would have thought. How old are they, you ask? Well, as Lucas (1930) puts it, “Cosmetics are as old as vanity” (p. 41). There have been findings in ancient burial and grave sites throughout Egypt that contain cosmetic apparatuses that are dated as early as the Predynastic period! That is old. Some of you might be wondering just how old that is. To give you an idea, there was a cosmetic palette that was found in the Predynastic period of Egypt, and its estimated date of creation is somewhere between 3850-2960 BC. If you’re wondering what a cosmetic palette from over 5,000 years ago might have looked like, then take a look below.
Image of a cosmetic palette (source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
These cosmetic palettes were used similarly to how painters use their slates to grind and mix paints and pigments. There were remnants of colours found on these palettes when they were excavated from tombs and grave sites. They were used regularly to grind the materials to be able to have ready-to-use make-up (Lucas, 1930). The prepared make-up was then stored in different ways. Once the grinded make-up was ready for use, the Egyptians would use a variety of methods to store their cosmetics. There has been evidence of shells, leaves from plants, and cosmetic jars as their methods of cosmetic storage (Lucas, 1930). The storage of cosmetics in a cosmetic jar was a trend that did not change much over time in ancient Egypt, as there have been records of jars being found from the New Kingdom period of Egypt, all the way up to the Ptolemaic period and further. Although the designs and materials to make the jars had changed over time, the function and the way they looked stayed relatively the same. Here’s what a cosmetic jar from the New Kingdom of Egypt looked like:
Cosmetic Jar (source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
To give you an idea on how the beauty products had changed over time throughout ancient Egypt, here’s what a cosmetic box looked like about a thousand years later:
Cosmetic Box in the shape of a composite capital (source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
As you can see, both cosmetic jars seem to have the same function as one another. They both have swivel tops, they both have a small compartment on the inside, and they are both appealing to the eye. The main difference is that the cosmetic box from the Ptolemaic period seems to have a more intricate design on the top, and instead of being made out of ivory, it is made out of a glassy faience.
First of all, why did they use cosmetics?
We use cosmetics today for the purpose of beautification, hiding imperfections, and to improve the appearance of our skin and features. The ancient Egyptians however, had far more reasons behind using cosmetics than just to improve appearances. Aside from beautification, they used cosmetics for religious purposes, hygiene, and even to help protect themselves against the aggressors of their environment. The black eye liner that we see on sarcophagi and mural depictions of the Egyptians, is not just for the appearance. The Egyptians would put black Kohl on their eyes to protect their eyes from the sun, and it was also used as an antiseptic against bacteria, as to avoid eye infections (Hayes, 1990). Oils and fats were used to protect the skin against the harsh sun, dust and climate (Forbes, 1957). Perfumes, incenses and henna were commonly used (especially in the Ptolemaic period of Egypt) in regards to funerary practices and burials, and religious offerings. These reasons behind cosmetics will be discussed in further details throughout this page.
So, what make-up products were they using?
The ancient Egyptians did not have the variety of products that we cosmetic lovers have today. The Egyptians stuck to more straightforward beauty products. They used things such as eye-paints, face paints, blush, pomades, and oils (Lucas, 1930). There is limited research done on the specific products that the ancient Egyptians used, and until the 20th century, there was little understanding of this topic. Alfred Lucas’s article (1930), “Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt” has paved the way for research on ancient Egyptian cosmetics, and thanks to his writings on the subject, it has given scholars the ability to move forward with research. As Scott says, “The first, and to date the only comprehensive account, was given by Lucas in 1930, which has formed the basis of all subsequent studies on the use of eye paint, face paint, oils, and solid fats for face and body ointments” (Scott, 2016). Let’s explore the products that the Egyptians had been using.
The eye-paints that were used in Egypt consisted mainly of the colours green, white, and especially black. Eye-paints were commonly created from using natural lead-based compounds to extract the pigments (Martinetto et al., 2001). The prepared state of the pigments was called “kohl”, and once the kohl was ready to be used it could either act as a powder, or as a paste (Lucas, 1930). Black Kohl is one of the most popular cosmetics that came from ancient Egypt. There were more colours and pigments that came about over time, however the processes in making the pigments stayed relatively consistent through the Ptolemaic period.
Green was created by using malachite (a basic copper carbonate). For those who are interested in (and understand) the science aspect of the cosmetics, the OED defines malachite as: “A monoclinic basic copper carbonate, Cu2CO3(OH)2, of a deep green colour, usually occurring as banded botryoidal crusts of aggregated fibres, and used ornamentally and as an ore of copper; (also) a specimen or piece of this mineral” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2018).
For those who are visual, malachite looks a little something like this:
Malachite (source: Wikimedia Commons)
The colour white was created by using white cerussite, also a natural lead-based compound:
White Cerussite (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Black was a significant colour to the Egyptians, as it was used more than any other colour pigment, and had additional purposes other than aesthetic. This pigment is the one they would use to place around their eyes to protect against the sun and bacteria, as ocular infections were prone to happen in this time period (Hayes, 242). The black pigment came from Galena, defined by the OED as a “natural lead sulphide” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2018).
Here’s what Galena looks like:
Galena (source: Wikimedia Commons)
There is evidence that paints were used not only around the eyes, but on the face as well. Along with the common colours of greens, blacks, and whites that were used for eyes, there were stains of a red pigment found in the tombs and around the cosmetic palettes. The red was used as a way to rouge the cheeks and lips. The red pigment was made into a paste specifically for the lips. The red was created by an earthy pigment called ochre, which was most likely mixed with a vegetable oil, or another form of grease to get the paste-like consistency for the lips (Hayes, 1990)
Red ochre pigment (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Fats and Oils
Another type of cosmetic product the Egyptians in the Ptolemaic period used were ointments, such as oils and fats. Egypt is a hot, dry, dusty climate, which had negative effects on the skin and hair of the inhabitants in this region. This practice was so common and effective in ancient Egypt, that the tradition to use oils on the skin and hair are still being done today in parts of Northern Africa (Lucas, 1930). The oils would keep the skin healthy, and it would help maintain its elasticity. Different types of oils were used by different social classes. For example, the poorer class would use castor oils, which grew naturally in the country sides of Egypt. The higher classes would use more expensive and rarer oils. Despite the differentiating oils being used, it was being used by everyone nonetheless. When possible, fragrances would be added to the oils to have a pleasing smell. However, some fats and oils already did have scent, such as juniper oil (Hayes, 1990).
Similar to the cosmetic jars and boxes that were shown previously, the Egyptians in the Ptolemaic period also had a method for storage of oils. The Alabastron was a vessel that was used specifically for holding perfumes, unguents and oils/ointments (Oxford English Dictionary, 2018).
Ptolemaic Egyptian alabastron for holding oils (source: Wikimedia Commons)
How did they apply their cosmetics?
Theorists suggest that before any applicator tool was accessible, the Egyptians would simply use their fingers for the application of their cosmetics (specifically for eye and face paints). After the Eleventh Dynasty of Egypt, it is believed that the make-up was “applied by means of a small wooden, bone, ivory or metal rod, the tip of which is moistened with water and dipped into the powder” (Lucas, 1990, p. 42). Kohl tubes became increasingly popular in the Middle Kingdom period of Egypt, and it kept its popularity for thousands of years to come, as it continued being used up until the Early Byzantine period. The kohl was kept in a small tube that was ready for use, and was applied to the eyes with a small stick with a slightly larger end that was attached to the tube (Hayes, 1990). Along with kohl tubes, there was a variety of tools and gadgets that the Egyptians had in their cosmetic collection. They used tweezers, hand mirrors, and razors. Take a look at these cosmetic tools:
From left to right: kohl tube, a razor, a whetstone, a pair of tweezers, and a mirror. (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ptolemaic Tweezers (source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
As you can see from these two images, tweezers were a common product of usage in ancient Egypt. The tweezers from the New Kingdom period in the first image seem to be a bit different in shape than the tweezers from the Ptolemaic period, however, they are still made from the exact same metal and serve the same practical function of plucking hair. The tweezers from the New Kingdom period are made from copper alloy, as are the tweezers from the Ptolemaic period. This shows that not many changes were made with cosmetic tools for quite some time.
Let’s take a break…
For those of you are interested in make-up, as well as Egypt and all the wonders that it has given us over the course of history, then here’s a quick make-up tutorial if you are feeling up to a creative challenge!
Besides make-up, what other cosmetics were being used?
Good question! Along with make-up, the usage of perfumes, incenses and henna was an incredibly popular tradition in the Ptolemaic period of Egypt.
Today, we use a process called distillation, which breaks down alcohols in order to absorb and retain the fragrances used for perfumes. We have records of Pliny the Elder (a Roman writer who lived in the 1st century A.D) writing on distillation, however the way in which he describes it, it seems to be in the early stages of development (Lucas, 1930). Therefore, the Egyptians would have used the next best thing to alcohol to absorb the scents: oils and fats! Most of the textual evidence we have today on the manufacturing of ancient perfumes comes from the Ptolemaic period. There are inscription on the temple of Edfu on how the preparation of perfumes was done (Manniche, 2009). The main ingredients that were used in perfume production were resins, and gum-resins. Resins and gum-resins are sticky, flammable substances that are secreted from trees (Oxford English Dictionary, 2018). The Ptolemaic Egyptians had amphora’s to store their perfumes. Amphora’s were two handed vessels, and were generally made from glass. Here’s what a Ptolemaic amphora looked like:
Amphora (source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Perfumes were used for a variety of reasons in Ptolemaic Egypt, one in particular being for funerary ceremonies and for religious offerings. There is evidence that shows us perfumes were linked to burial sites, as there have been funerary inscriptions that discuss perfumes. Perfumes were significant for burials due to the fact that lotus was a key ingredient in most fragrances, and lotus was said to be associated with purification and rejuvenation. The Ptolemaic Egyptians believed that the lotus could nourish a spirit after death (Van Toller and Dodd, 1993). There was an inscription found on the lid of a Ptolemaic sarcophagus from Saqqara, that describes the common use of perfume in the funerary context. A piece of the inscription reads:
Priestesses richly adorned,
Anointed with myrrh, perfumed with lotus,
Their heads garlanded with wreaths,
All together drunk with win,
Fragrant with the plants of Punt,
They danced in beauty, doing my heart’s wish,
Their rewards were on their limbs. (Lichtheim, 2006)
Lucas perfectly sums up why incense is part of the perfume and cosmetic realm of ancient Egypt by saying,
“Since the word incense (Latin incendere, to burn or kindle) has the same literal meaning as the word perfume, which is the aroma given off with the smoke (per fumum) of any odoriferous substance when burned, incense, therefore, should be included in any description of ancient Egyptian perfumes.” (Lucas, 1930)
Incense burning in Egypt can be traced back as far as the 5th Dynasty (Lucas, 1930). There have been many discoveries of incense being highly used in the Ptolemaic period, as we have inscriptions and recipes that have been found relating to incense burning. There have been inscriptions found on three different Ptolemaic temple walls, two found at the temple of Edfu, and one from the temple at Philae (Manniche, 2009). There was also remnants of incense found in tombs of priests from Philae (Lucas 1930). There has been discoveries of ancient incense burners in the Ptolemaic period, such as this one:
Incense burner (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Incense, much like perfumes were created with resins. We know this as we have recipes of Kyphi from the 1st century A.D from people who had physically lived in Egypt, and obtained the ancient recipes from Egypt. Kyphi is one of the most popular incenses found from ancient Egypt, and could have as much as 16 ingredients including herbs, spices and resins (Manniche, 2009). Take a look at a recipe of Kyphi, which was written by a man named Rufus, who had acquired the recipe from Egypt:
Recipe for Kyphi by Rufus of Ephesus (1st century AD) via Damocrates, via Galen
base: 90 g raisins with skin and pips removed
‘a little’ wine
gum resins: 90 g ‘burnt resin’
45 g ‘nails’ of bdellium
herbs: 45 g camel grass
33 g sweet flag
11 g pure cyperus grass
4 g saffron
11 g spikenard
2 ‘semis’ aspalathos
spices: 15 g or cardamom
11 g good cassia
Mash raisins with honey. Grind together bdellium, myrrh and wine until it has the consistency of runny honey. Add the raisin and honey mixture. Grind the remaining ingredients and add to the mixture. Shape into pellets for censing the gods. (Manniche, 1999)
Incenses were used for a variety of purposes. Incense was burnt for temple rituals, funerary ceremonies, offerings to gods, and it was used in connection with embalming processes (Manniche, 2009). Incense would be used for purification in mummification processes, as the Egyptians had believed that the incense could keep the soul alive within the mummy. There is an inscription in the tomb of Aahmose that reads,
“Take to thee lotus flowers, plants and lotus buds, when they recur as every bloom and every herb of sweet odour at its season; cool water and incense and offer them so that the spirit that lives in the mummy (Ka) might be satisfied with them for ever and ever.” (Van Toller and Dodd, 1993)
There is an overwhelming amount of relief art found in temples that depict people burning incense as an offering, mostly to Gods (Bothmer, 1952). Here, you can see a Ptolemaic relief of a King standing behind a Goddess, offering her burning incense:
Egyptian Temple Relief (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Henna is something that is still being used today for cosmetic and decorative purposes. It is used as temporary markings around the hands and feet, usually in beautiful designs. This is what henna generally looks like today:
Henna design from India (source: owner of image)
When the henna is dried, you peel it off and it leaves a red-toned stain on the skin. It is used in many countries around the world today, especially in Northern parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Similarly, henna was used in ancient Egypt. Henna is a plant that is also known as the Egyptian Privet, and it contains a dye within the stems and leaves that can be extracted (Oxford English Dictionary, 2018). There is evidence of henna being used in ancient Egypt, as there have been twigs of henna found inside the Ptolemaic cemetery of Hawara (Lucas, 1930). There is also evidence of excavated mummies that have had a red dye found around their nails, hands, and soles of their feet, which has been lead to believe that it is not make-up, but rather henna (Hayes 1990). Using henna and cosmetics seemed to have been a process in decorating the mummy during the process of mummification (Malgorzata et al., 1998).
If you’re interested in trying out henna for yourself, here’s a henna design kit that you can try at home!
Before we go…
If after reading this web page you have a sudden hankering to travel to Egypt to see the wonders it holds, you can take a look at this credible tour company that does wonderful historic group tours to Egypt. Along with seeing the Great Pyramids of Giza and swimming in the Red Sea, they also take you to Saqqara, an ancient burial ground that was mentioned earlier in this web page.
If you’re interested in continuing to see ancient Egyptian artifacts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has approximately 26,000 objects in their Egyptian collection that consist of artistic, historical, and cultural importance. They also frequently have exhibits relating to Egypt that you can find on their website here:
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