An incredibly well-preserved jar of 2,000-year-old face cream was found at the site of an ancient Roman temple in London. The cream even had its user’s fingerprints still in it. It was made from donkey’s milk, and other ancient cosmetics have been found made from delightful ingredients like crocodile dung.
Amanda Onion writes in abcnews.com that another favorite Roman cosmetic ingredient came from the sweat and dirt from sheep’s wool. “Basically they were getting lanolin,” says Museum of London curator Jenny Hall. Lanolin is still used in cosmetics today.
For lipstick, Roman women used red ochre or the dregs from red wine. They mixed bear’s fat with lamp soot for eyeliner and mascara. Blusher and eye shadow came from ground saffron.
Pale skin was in fashion and to get it, women used lead. We now know that lead can lead to brain damage, which may be the origin of the term “dumb blonde.” Romans knew it was dangerous but used it anyway. “The Romans wrote essays on its toxic nature, and the Elizabethans also used it extensively while similarly being aware that its use withered the skin, caused sores and damaged internal organs,” says archeologist Sally Pointer. “Even today, lead is not uncommon in cosmetics, particularly in the Middle East.”
But there were other options. Some women used dried crocodile dung, while others used chalk and ground-up roots of the iris, which are also poisonous.
The desire for a tan is a recent development, since it indicates you have enough money and leisure to spend time at the beach. We now know tans are also dangerous, but in the past, a pale face represented an upper-class life away from toil under the rays of the sun.
Pointer says, “While every historic period has had its own peculiar fashions or trends, some aspects of cosmetic use have remained relatively constant,” she says. “It is extremely common to find white skin, red lips and black eyebrows being held up as an expression of perfect beauty even in parts of the world where the native genetic skin tone does not lend itself to this coloring.”
Skin-whitening products are still popular with darker-skinned women in the U.S. and around the world, so some things never change.
What was life really like for people in the deep past? In order to find out, William Henry is a language detective. He talks with Whitley (and gives him a Tarot reading for subscribers) this Saturday on Dreamland.
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