Category Archives: Antiquity

‘From Past to Present – Natural Cosmetics Unwrapped’: Conference, Workshop, and Museum Exhibition

By Jane Draycott

For the past two years, the Arts and Humanities Research Council has been funding the ‘From natural resources to packaging, an interdisciplinary study of skincare products over time’ research project through an Early Career Development Award as part of its Science in Culture Theme. Early career researchers from the University of Oxford, the University of Glasgow, and Keele University have been working in conjunction with staff at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum, and at the Boots Archive (on which see this Recipes Project post) to undertake a scoping project and investigate the evolution of skincare products over time. The aims of the project were to identify the natural substances used in skincare products in the past and identify what – if any – pharmaceutical properties they possessed; to study the packaging and advertising of skincare products and the ways in which ancient images were utilised in them; to recreate ancient skincare products using contemporary natural substances; and to undertake public engagement activities and so disseminate the information generated by the project.

Cosmetics containers from the Kerameikos Museum, Athens, circa fifth century BCE, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The culmination of the project was a two-day event at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum, the first day consisting of a conference, the second a workshop, accompanied by ‘Cosmetics Unwrapped’, a special exhibition at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum, which draws on the museum’s collections as well as those of the Boots Archive and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

On Thursday 15th February, eleven experts in different areas of the history of cosmetics from around the world presented their research. Thibaut Devièse, the Principal Investigator of the ‘From natural resources to packaging, an interdisciplinary study of skincare products over time’ research project, opened the conference with an overview of the project’s activities and findings.The first panel focused on literary, documentary and archaeological evidence for cosmetics in ancient and historical periods. Francisco Gomes from the University of Lisbon discussed evidence for perfumes and unguents in the Western Iberian Iron Age, noting that the containers are an under-studied item and minimal analysis has been done on either them or their contents. Mira Cohen Starkman from the Wingate Institute discussed a range of cosmetic recipes from Jewish literature in use in Ladino and observed that comparative research using contemporary tribal practices can be useful when attempting to understand how natural resources were utilised as cosmetics in the past. Finally, Kathleen Walker-Meikle surveyed Hieronymus Mercurialis’ skincare recipes and highlighted the amount of ancient Greek and Latin medical recipes that he had utilised as sources.

The second panel explored the scientific analysis and experimental reconstruction of ancient and historical cosmetics. Josefina Perez-Arantegui from the University of Zaragoza detailed the different types of chemical analysis that can be brought to bear on surviving samples of cosmetics, while Maria Cristina Gamberini from the University of Modena provided an overview of not only the chemical analysis of Phoenician pigments but also the recreation of the recipes that would have contained them. Finally, Effie Photos-Jones of the University of Glasgow surveyed the different types of white pigment recovered from burials in Attic Greece and presented evidence that some of these pigments had been synthetically created in accordance with instructions found in ancient Greek literature.

The third panel provided an opportunity to explore the reception of ancient cosmetics in later historical periods and in the contemporary world. Judith Wright from Boots presented a lively potted history of the company’s popular No7 brand, noting how the brand responded to social change over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first century. Peter Homan, President of the British Society for the History of Pharmacy discussed remedies for baldness. Anisha Gupta from Kings College London scrutinised the numerous approaches to oral hygiene undertaken throughout history. Finally, independent scholar Julie Wakefield investigated the used of the ancient Greek pharmaceutical writer Dioscorides’ work by herbalists in the Early Modern period. The conference was brought to a close with a guest lecture on the appeal of natural products from the botanist, science writer, and broadcaster James Wong, author of the internationally best-selling books Grow Your Own Drugs and Homegrown Revolution.

On Friday 16th February, a free to attend workshop open to members of the public, generously funded by the Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Keele University and sponsored by G. Baldwin and Co. allowed experts in the recreation of historical cosmetics Szu Wong, Anisha Gupta, and Julie Wakefield to share their knowledge, expertise, and techniques. Parents and children from across London were invited to test a range of products recreated from ancient recipes such as Ovid’s face packs and face masks, Cleopatra’s solution for hair loss, and Egyptian kohl, and to create their own toothpastes and oatmeal moisturisers. Children were also encouraged to come up with ideas for cosmetics and design and make packaging and advertising for them.

Star Soap advert and soap, image courtesy of Jane Draycott

The ‘Cosmetics Unwrapped’ exhibition will be on display at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society until August and is free to view.

The team would like to thank the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Keele University, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and G. Baldwin & Co for supporting the research project and these events.

Sugar versus honey in Byzantine recipes

By Petros Bouras-Vallianatos

The Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople (now Istanbul), then a mainly Greek-speaking region, constituted a natural crossroads between East and West for more than a millennium (AD 324–1453). Its history is an indispensable part of the medieval period in both Europe and the Middle East. In the field of medicine, for example, we can attest to widespread interactions with the Islamic tradition.

The most dynamic part of Byzantine therapeutics was pharmacology. We are privileged to have several surviving pharmacological manuals, especially dating from the later period, i.e. from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, which provide us with a unique testimony to Byzantine composite drugs. Here I have selected the example of sugar-based potions, as it offers an excellent case-study that helps us to better understand the way Byzantine recipes were developed through a process of both practical experimentation and influence from outside.

Before the introduction of sugar, people relied on honey to make medical potions sweet. Greek and early Byzantine medical authors referred to honey-based drugs such as oinomeli (a mixture of honey with wine), hydromeli (a mixture of honey with water) or oxymeli (a mixture of honey with vinegar). For example, Paul of Aegina (fl. first half of the seventh century) recommends the following recipe for those suffering from calculi:

One ounce[1] each of saxifrage, betony, dog’s-tooth grass, maidenhair fern, spikenard, carpesium, hazelwort, and eryngo; one half ounce each of Macedonian parsley and seed of rue; two ounces each of green fennel, iris, baked squill, and periwinkle; three ounces of bark of the root of capper; two ounces of water-parsnip; and two sextarii[2] each of water, vinegar, and honey.[3]

Meanwhile, the cultivation of sugarcane gradually spread throughout the Islamic East from the seventh/eighth century onwards. Sugar was used as a simple drug, for stomach ailments and the relief of pain in, for example, the chest and kidneys. However, it also became popular as an excipient in liquid pharmaceutical dosage forms, used as a sweetener and preservative, initially supplementing and gradually replacing the use of honey for pharmacological purposes in the Islamic world. Sugar is of higher purity than honey, thus a smaller quantity has a stronger preservative action; it is also less susceptible to changes of temperature and ensures greater homogeneity into the final product. Among the most commonly used potions in Islamic medicine are the so-called julep (julāb) and syrup (sharāb), both of which consisted of sugar and one or more kinds of fruit juices or extracts of flowers.

Figure 1. Medieval, cone-shaped earthenware devices for the refining of sugar from Cyprus. Courtesy of Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation.
Figure 1. Medieval, cone-shaped earthenware devices for the refining of sugar from Cyprus. Courtesy of Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation.

By the eleventh century sugarcane cultivation was thriving in Syria and Palestine, eventually reaching the large Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Sicily. Western merchants, such as the Genoese and the Venetians, played an important role in the distribution of this commodity throughout the Mediterranean, including Byzantium. For example, sugar is mentioned among the main supplies for the newly established Byzantine hospital (xenon) of the Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople in the early twelfth century, but it was not until the late thirteenth century that sugar became widely available in the Byzantine world.

At the same time, we can observe the transfer of medical knowledge to Byzantium through translations of Arabic and Persian works into Greek. The earliest text of this kind, which preserves a large number of references relating to the various kinds of sugar-based potions, is the Greek translation of Ibn-Jazzār’s (fl. tenth century) Ephodia tou Apodēmountos (Zād al-musāfir wa qūṭ al-ḥāḍir/Provisions for the Traveller and Nourishment for the Sedentary), which must have been translated in the late eleventh/early twelfth century by scholars working in Southern Italy. By the early fourteenth century recipes for sugar-based potions had become very common in Byzantine manuals. The Constantinopolitan medical author and practising physician John Zacharias Aktouarios (ca. 1275–ca. 1330) provides an extensive list consisting of about thirty recipes, and he often explicitly acknowledges that he was introducing a new recipe. For example, he gives the following recipe for a julep for heart palpitations:

One hexagion[4] of the three sandalwoods; three hexagia of violet; two hexagia of basil seed; two hexagia of rose; five hexagia each of bugloss and ox-eye flowers; two hexagia of aloeswood; one hexagion of ambergris; two hexagia of saffron; three hexagia each of dried flower-buds from the clove-tree and nutmeg; one hexagion each of cinnamon, anise, caraway, and fennel seed; five grains of musk; one hexagion of poppy seed; three ounces of the juice of sweet apples; one ounce of rosewater; five ounces of distilled endive water; one ounce each of the roots of fennel, wild celery, and chicory; three hexagia each of marjoram, chamomile, and wormwood; and three ounces of sugar.[5]

Figure 2. A julep recipe added in the lower margin of a fifteenth-century medical manuscript, MS.MSL.52, f. 143v. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
Figure 2. A julep recipe added in the lower margin of a fifteenth-century medical manuscript, MS.MSL.52, f. 143v. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

In this recipe, in addition to sugar, we can also see ingredients from Asia and the Far East, such as musk, amber, and sandalwood, which became common in European pharmacology, especially during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries after the Mongols’ conquests in Eurasia that led to the Pax Mongolica and the resulting improvements in trading conditions. To sum up, the fact that Byzantine physicians were aware of the usefulness and effectiveness of these sugar-based potions and made extensive use of them is at odds with the established view that Byzantine society was not very open to outside influence. Nowadays sugar is omnipresent and often replaced by sugar substitutes for the sake of diabetics and the diet-conscious; but once it was a novelty and highly desirable!

[1] One ounce is equal to 27.288 g.

[2] One sextarius is equal to 54.58 g.

[3] Ed. J. L. Heiberg. Paulus Aegineta, vol. 2 (Leipzig-Berlin: Teubner, 1924), 309, 1-6.

[4] One hexagion is equal to 5.166 g.

[5] Vindobonensis med. gr. 17 (first half 15th c.), f. 118r, lines 4-11.

*****

Petros Bouras-Vallianatos studied pharmacy, ancient and Byzantine history, before completing his PhD on the late Byzantine medical author John Zacharias Aktouarios; a revised version of his doctoral thesis is to be published soon. He is Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in Medical Humanities in the Department of History at King’s College London, where he is working on a three-year project entitled ‘Experiment and Exchange: Byzantine Pharmacology between East and West (ca. 1150-ca.1450)’. He has published several articles on Byzantine and early Renaissance medicine and pharmacology, the reception of the classical medical tradition in the Middle Ages, and palaeography, including the first descriptive catalogue of the Greek manuscripts at the Wellcome Library in London. He is also co-editing the Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Galen.

Al the Britons doe dye themselues wyth woade: experimenting with woad and its history

Jodi Reeves Eyre, PhD, RPA

Image Credit: By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Image Credit: By Johann Georg Sturm (Painter: Jacob Sturm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
We are, apparently, living during a ‘post-truth’ time when alternative facts have just as much impact on some people’s decisions and beliefs as, well, fact facts. The concept of the “alternative fact,” which refers to promoting emotional or biased assertions over facts, has historic precedent. Julius Caesar, when documenting his campaigns in Gaul, noted that:

Al the Britons doe dye themselues wyth woade, which setteth a blewish color vppon them: and it maketh the more terryble to beholde in battell.[1]

Surely if woad were so widely available, there would be decent archaeological evidence for its application. There is one early find at the Iron Age site of Dragonby. The site revealed woad remains, in the form of seeds and pods, as part of a waterlogged assemblage from a late Iron Age pit. The exact purpose of the pit has not been identified.[2] The seeds and pods can be considered circumstantial evidence when it comes to claiming that the plant was introduced for its dye because the material needed for dyeing, the leaves, may not survive nearly as well. The difficulty of finding woad leaves archaeologically means that we can only rely on the indirect evidence of the plant as a possible dye from Dragonby.

As a conqueror displaying his military strength and emphasizing the legitimacy of his triumph, Caesar may have called on Romans’ traditional concepts of fierce barbarians. Blue had negative connotations within Greco-Roman culture, being associated with ghosts, death, and, perhaps worst of all, barbarians.[3] By including such a charged description of ‘blue’ Britons, Caesar set down more than an ethnographic account. He used existing preconceptions for his political advantage. It is doubtful, however, that Caesar conceptualized the lasting legacy his charged description would have on social memory and identity. Even today, it is common to see depictions of ancient Britons painted blue, despite limited botanical-archaeological evidence and possible evidence to the contrary. The image of bluely decorated warriors can be found everywhere from the early 20th century, one example being the National Anthem of the Ancient Britons and another the anachronic depiction in the movie, BraveHeart.[4]

But, why?

Because it’s tradition, apparently. The 1565 translation of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, above, translates the word vitrum as woade (woad, Isatis tinctoria). This translation, by Arthur Goulding, is the earliest I’ve identified. Gillian Carr and several others give other possible translations as being “dye themselves with glazes” or “infect themselves with glass.”[5] So why is vitrum so often translated as woad in this context?

Woad was an important crop for some English abbeys during the medieval period, and a key crop in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[6] What better way to form a defense against an encroaching foreign material than to highlight the cultural importance of its proud, “indigenous” counterpart?

Enter vitrum as woad. Caesar may not have a historical monopoly on shaping a narrative to support a cause. In fact, he may not even have a monopoly on shaping his own narrative to support a cause. Still, just as there is limited evidence regarding the use of woad in ancient Britain, there is limited evidence supporting the reasons behind the historical trend in translating vitrum as woad.

Despite the potential mistranslations and lack of archaeological, textual, and iconographic evidence, people are still interested in the question, “does it work?” Without a recipe or replicable evidence, experimentation depends primarily on how other pigments are made ethnographically or in the past under other conditions and contexts. We know woad is a dye, and we know that it can color the skin and that it can be added to a binder to make a pigment. Some experiments reveal that woad, when compared to our perceptions of its color and use, is a poor choice for corporal decoration in terms of dyeing, tattooing, or staining the body. Want to replicate the results of these studies or develop your own? Carr describes her experiments in her article, and a link to my initial methodology and experimental recipes can be found in the footnotes below. Find out for yourself whether it works by using woad and other pigments and dyes to paint or dye your skin blue.[7]

Sharing research and experimental results is one remedy to the promotion of potentially alternative facts (such as blue Britons) through critical engagement of evidence. The lack of recipes or physical remains is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to encourage the exploration of other materials, methods. The confusing, and possibly sordid, history of woad in Britain also provides an opportunity to explore not only the history of translations of Caesar’s works and how identity and social memory reflect our relationship with plants, but it is also an interesting context in which to explore the use (or misuse) of woad.

[1] Caesar, Julius. The Eyght Bookes of Caius Iulius Cæsar Conteyning His Martiall Exploytes in the Realme of Gallia and the Countries Bordering Vppon the Same Translated Oute of Latin into English by Arthur Goldinge G. (London: Willyam Seres, 1565), http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A17521.0001.001?view=toc, Book V.

[2] Veen, M. Van Der, Hall, A.R. and May, J.  ‘Woad and the Britons painted blue,’ Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 12 (1993), 367-71.

[3] Pastoureau, Michel. Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[4] Gibson, Mel. Braveheart (Warner Bros., 1995).

[5] Lewis, Charlton T.  and Charles Short. “Vī^trum,” A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper; Carr, Gillian. “Woad, Tattooing and Identity in Later Iron Age and Early Roman Britain,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 24, no. 3 ( 2005): 273–92, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.2005.00236.x).

[6] Carr, “Woad, Tattooing and Identity”; Pyatt,F.B., et al. “Non Isatis Sed Vitrum Or, the Colour of Lindow Man,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 10, no. 1 (1991): 61–73, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0092.1991.tb00006.x; Thirsk, Joan. “The Agricultural Landscape: Fads and Fashions,” in 1. S. R. J. Woodell, ed., The English Landscape: Past, Present, and Future, Wolfson College Lectures 1983. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

[7]  Carr. “Woad, Tattooing and Identity”; Fish, Pat. Woad and it’s mis-association with Pictish BodyArt, available at: https://www.hippy.com/albion/woad.htm; Reeves Flores, Jodi. Woad is me: Woad as a corporal decoration in Iron Age Britain, (master’s thesis, University of Exeter, 2008), 31-53.

*****

Jodi Reeves Eyre has a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Exeter and served as a CLIR/DLF Fellow on Data Curation in the Sciences and Social Sciences at Arizona State University (2013-2015). She is a member of the Secretariat for the group EXARC, an ICOM affiliated organisation representing archaeological open-air museums, experimental archaeology, ancient technology, and interpretation. Jodi is also a co-founder of Eyre & Israel, LLC, which provides research, editing, and digital curation consulting. Her work promotes the preservation of cultural heritage and explores perceptions about the past and social memory. She has conducted ethnographic research among other archaeologists, woven on models of ancient Greek looms, and painted people blue.

Twitter: @thejodireeves

Theodorus Priscianus’ recipes for breast engorgement

By Louise Cilliers

We know very little about Theodorus Priscianus, only that he was a student of the famous Carthaginian physician, Vindicianus (late 4th century CE), and was thus also a native of North Africa. We can also deduce that he was a professional doctor. The work for which Theodorus is known, is the Euporiston (a book of easily obtainable remedies), which consists of four books of medical recipes, of which the fourth, the Gynaecia, contains treatments for women’s diseases. Due to its practical applicability, the Gynaecia was very popular in the later Middle Ages; it was excerpted on numerous occasions.

A carving showing a Roman midwife, Wellcome Collection. Credit: Wellcome Library.

The Gynaecia is dedicated to a midwife, a certain Victoria. In his preface, Theodorus states that he wants to “support her with his knowledge”, and he requests her to “faithfully, diligently and carefully… carry into effect the remedies for female ailments” as set out in his treatise. This knowledge was then to be disseminated among midwives and other women to help them in treating ailing women.

Theodorus’ Gynaecia comprises recipes for ten female ailments which he discusses. They are: engorgement of the breasts after parturition, swelling or contraction of the uterus, the mole, atresia, sterility, abortion, haemorrhage of the uterus, injuries to the uterus, the flux, and gonorrhoea. I will focus on engorgement of the breasts after parturition.

This is a very common problem that women experience after having given birth, and various procedures, such as poultices laid on the breasts, were followed in ancient times. Medicaments, made from vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen, were also given. Theodorus clearly has empathy with women whose breasts are taut, swollen or painful after birth. In not too serious cases, he recommends that a soft sponge soaked in a mild astringent, such as vinegar, be applied to the breast, and held in place by a light bandage. Alternatively soothing poultices, for instance, bread soaked in water-mead and oil or fresh pork fat can be laid on the breasts.

If the problem of engorgement has been resolved but the mother still wants to feed the baby, the breasts should be smeared with rush, egg and saffron, or crushed raisins mixed with the flour of beans, or pounded sesame seed mixed with vinegar and honey, or a mixture of pounded leaves of ivy and figs, or (even more directly from the kitchen) fresh pounded cheese with vinegar-honey – if these substances be made into a poultice, they would apparently have increased the fecundity of the milk.

If the patient cannot bear the weight of the poultice, the breasts must be steamed, and an even softer sponge soaked in an extract of marsh mallow, linseed and fenugreek plants be applied.

Purslane, one of the plants used in ancient breast poultices. Credit: Wellcome Library,

But if milk production should be stopped completely, alum or the seed of fleawort or coriander of purslane must be added to the aforementioned poultice, or the powder of a pounded millstone mixed with a wax salve should be applied. But if the breast has produced pus, it must be opened with appropriate aid, so that with one voiding they can be healed completely.

Throughout Theodorus warns that medicaments should be mild, and that all poultices should be applied with moderation, with consideration for the tender breasts.

Further reading:
You can find the text of Theodorus Priscianus’ Euporiston (in Latin) here.