What’s In an Ancient Egyptian Makeup Bag?

By Alana Martini, published as part of the Undergraduate Series

I have been fascinated by the world of cosmetics for a very long time, and it appears that I am not the only one. Our love affair with cosmetics is almost as old as humanity itself. Large amounts of red ochre were found, dating roughly from 100 to 125,000 years ago during excavations in South African caves – these are presumed to be have been used to paint the body and the face. One might say that this desire to adorn ourselves with cosmetics is an intrinsic part of the human experience, as it is shared practice across different cultures.

From the various looks we have sported across the centuries, the Ancient Egyptian look stands out as one of the more memorable ones in the history of makeup. This is not a surprise, for the Ancient Egyptians were avid lovers of cosmetics. Their heavily kohl-lined eyes are instantly recognizable and often recreated in Hollywood blockbusters, the most famous portrayal being Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra.

Earlier on this year, I embarked on a project that involved studying Ancient Egyptian cosmetics and a subsequent reconstruction of a typical “Egyptian look” from the New Kingdom. This research culminated in a short video tutorial. Although cosmetics were used by both genders, my analysis focused on women only. Here are a few of the main conclusions that I have reached along the way:

In the beginning, cosmetics served a practical purpose: to protect the wearer from the harsh rays of the sun. Malachite, one of the principal ingredients used in eye paints, shielded the eyes by absorbing some of the sun’s rays, and the oil they mixed it with would catch the dust from the desert. Another prominent ingredient in eye paints was galena, which helped to prevent and treat eye diseases. Thus, a very popular combination for eye makeup consisted of malachite used as a green eye shadow and galena to line the eyes. It is not clear whether the ancient Egyptians were aware of the properties of their ingredients, but it is known that they were experts in wet chemistry, often creating mixtures that required complex procedures as long ago as 2000 BC.

However, the use of cosmetics for women went beyond practicality. There is strong evidence to suggest that, as most women today, Egyptian women enjoyed applying makeup purely for beautification. I stress the word “women” here, for only they are depicted during acts of beautification on wall reliefs.

Image 1: Painting from the tomb of Nakht depicting three women (Google images)

Judging by the evidence, it appears that women wore more makeup than men which, I suspect, has its roots in their biological difference. For instance, the contrast between facial features and facial skin is more pronounced in women than in men, and women’s use of makeup enhances this and influences the attractiveness of a given face.  In the Egyptian case, the brows were darkened and the eyes lined with kohl to accentuate this contrast. Other colours were used as well; the ancient palette consisted of blue, turquoise, terracotta, and different shades of brown and grey. Many samples of eye paint have been found in graves in the form of a paste (which has dried up over time) or more commonly as a powder.

Moreover, it has been posited that redness in the cheeks enhances “apparent health and attractiveness, particularly in female faces.” To “fake” redness, the Egyptian woman would have used red ochre, a pigment that occurs naturally in the Egyptian desert. This deep burnt orange shade was also most likely used as a lip tint, although there is no definite proof to support this. Red has been a popular choice as a lip colour through time in diverse cultures – the colour red appears to us “exciting and stimulating,” and lip redness makes a woman’s face more attractive and feminine. From my own observations, I strongly believe that this was the case, especially if we consider the vibrant lip shade on the Nefertiti bust.

Images 2 and 3: A side by side comparison between the Nefertiti bust and my modern reconstruction. I have used red ochre, and the reader will note that the lip shade is strikingly similar.

What does all of this tell us about Ancient Egyptian practices regarding cosmetics? Egyptian women, like many women today, enjoyed applying cosmetics to their face. Although an authentic Egyptian look would appear caricature-like in today’s society, there are certain elements that could easily be identified in a modern woman’s routine – the red lips or the kohl-lined eyes, for instance. Contemporary women try and achieve similar results as their Egyptian predecessors, just not in the same intensity. Beautification was an important part of a woman’s life, and it proves that we are not so dissimilar after all. The desire to adorn ourselves remains every bit as strong as four millennia ago.


References

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Corson, R. 2003. Fashions in Makeup: From Ancient to Modern Times. London: Peter Owen Publishers.

Eldridge, L. 2015. Face Paint: The Story of Makeup. New York: Abrams Image.

Lucas, A. 1930. Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 16(1/2), 41-53.

Manniche, L. 1999. Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. London: Opus Publishing Limited.

Mikkelides, B. 2012. Colour psychology: the emotional effects of colour perception. In Best, J. (ed.): Colour Design: Theories and Applications. Oxford: Woodhead Publishing.

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Walter, P., Martinetto, P., Tsoucaris, G., Brniaux, R., Lefebvre, M.A., Richard, G., Talabot, J., Dooryhee, E. 1999. Making make-up in Ancient Egypt. Nature volume 397, 483–484.

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