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Cosmetics

In ancient Egypt, men as well as women, wore cosmetics. Cosmetic items were often included among funerary equipment, suggesting that they were considered vital pieces of equipment.

 

Grinding palettes have been used as early as c. 5500BC. They were used for grinding pigments such as galena or green malachite (copper ore) and, in the Predynastic, red ochre. As galena was used as eye-paint it is assumed that these palettes were used for grinding eye make-up, but of course thay could have been used for grinding other body paints, or indeed for grinding paint used to decorate items other than the human body. 

We know from art and text from the Old Kingdom onward that eye-paint was used, though it is possible that in the earlier periods in particular that paint was used for the body. There are also some later depictions which suggest that paint, presumably ochre was used for the lips and/or cheeks.  For example, on the Turin ‘erotic papyrus’ a young woman appears to be applying lipstick. However, such depictions could be open to other interpretations – the woman is holding an implement near her mouth but whether it was the artist’s intention to show lipstick application or not is debateable.

The green galena seems mainly to have been used as eye paint until the middle of the Old Kingdom (c. 2900 BC). It was then replaced by the black galena (lead ore) based kohl. You can still see traces of the black kohl inside some of the cosmetic jars on display. As well as being used for decorative effect, eye-makeup perhaps protected the eyes from the bright sun and acted as a natural disinfectant. It may also have been linked with religion.

The Egypt Centre has a number of fish-shaped cosmetic palettes and Predynastic siltstone palettes including a Predynastic siltstone palette in the shape of a debased bird. We also have Predynastic hard-stone palettes.  

The decoration of the eyes was not purely to beautify but seems to have had a religious purpose. Green eye paint, for example, is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts. In the Pre and Early Dynastic oversize palettes were made, and put in temples and tombs. As in many cultures today, eye makeup is also assumed to have been protective against disease and the sun.

Until the 18th Dynasty (c. 1550 BC), kohl was stored in small flat bottomed jars. Later, a tubular form of vessel was more commonly used. Both of these types can be seen in the Egypt Centre. The cosmetics jars in the Egypt Centre are made from stone or faience. Poorer people would usually have used plain wooden examples. The centre does have a container for eye-make up in the shape of Bes. This is on loan from the British Museum and probably dates to the Late Period or Graeco-Roman Period. 

Open form spoons or palettes were also introduced in the New Kingdom. While swimming girl spoons were also introduced at this time, that in the Egypt Centre is a much later dated example. 

The Egyptians used ochre to redden their cheeks. Henna was applied to the hair, nails, palms and soles. Mirrors often appear in female graves. Men presumably used them too but they rarely appear in male graves. Mirrors were made of polished metal – there was no mirror glass until the Roman Period. 

Vegetable or animal oils and fats were scented and applied to the skin. A number of the jars on display here may have contained the scented oils used for this purpose. Perfumed oils were scooped out of jars using special spoons, often in the shape of swimming girls. It is often said that at parties women wore perfume cones of fat on their heads. As the evening progressed the fat would melt and dribble over the hair and clothes! However, others believe that these cones shown on tomb walls are simply a hieroglyphic symbol to show that wigs were scented. 

Perfumes were made from myrrh, desert date, terebinth or frankincense mixed with oil. According to Roman writers, ancient Egyptian women were famed for their sweet scent.

For most of Egyptian history men and women removed hair from their bodies

Egyptians, particularly the elite, wore wigs. Women often wore long heavy wigs, and men shorter ones. They were usually made of genuine human hair. As today, the Egyptians employed many potions to avoid greying and baldness. 

Tattoos are shown on 4 middle Kingdom mummies. You can also see tattoos marked on the doll figurine in the upstairs gallery. Singers and dancers sometimes had the figure of Bes on their thighs. Bes was dwarf god with a lion mane. He was associated with sexuality and child-birth.

 

Lucas, A.L. ‘Cosmetics, perfumes and incense in ancient Egypt’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 16 (1930), 41-53.

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