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.


Betrò, M. 2017. «Bello come il cielo»: il senso del bello nell’antico Egitto. Storia Delle Donne, 12(1), 81-96.

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.

Russell, R. 2003. Sex, beauty and the relative luminance of facial features. Perception 32, 1093-1107.

Stephen, I. and McKeegan, A. 2010. Lip color affects perceived sex typicality and attractiveness. Perception 39, 1104-1110.

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.

Watterson, B. 1991. Women in Ancient Egypt. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

From the dry sands of Egypt… Greek medicine labels on papyrus

By Isabella Bonati

Amongst the many objects depicted in the “unswept floor” mosaic by Heraclitus (II cent. CE) there is a drug container (unguentarium) with a narrow, probably folded, papyrus tag suspended from its neck. This tag likely offered the identification of the content, possibly an ointment or some aromata, stored into the unguentarium. This striking mosaic provides archeological evidence of the common use of medicine labels across the ancient world. [1]

Drug container with papyrus label. Detail of the asàrotos òikos mosaic (“unswept floor”) by Heraclitus, Gregorian Profane Museum (Vatican Museums), cat. 10132.

Like the modern patient information leaflets, the practice of labeling containers was particularly useful in medical contexts. In spite of the perishability of their support, some of these labels on papyrus have been preserved by the dry sands of Egypt. One example is a strip of papyrus cut on all sides (8,5 cm x 22 cm), dating back to the first half of the III century BCE on paleographical ground (SB XIX 12074).[2]

Ptolemaic list of aromata and honey on papyrus (SB XIX 12074), Ann Arbor, Michigan University, Library P. 3243

The papyrus contains a list of five spices – cassia, cinnamon, nard, myrrh and saffron – and two specific kinds of honey – the Cretan and the Theangelic – commonly used in medical recipes. The strip was folded vertically down the center in order to obtain five panels of equal size. Then a notch was cut along the right-hand fold producing two holes. It is likely that a string was passed through the holes to suspend the folded sheet from or attach it to some other object, such the container storing the remedy obtained by the ingredients mentioned in the list, like in the mosaic image above. Thus, this papyrus seems to represent a concrete specimen of the practice illustrated in the “unswept floor” mosaic.

This particular medical label belongs to a broader context. Greek medical papyri coming from Egypt, dating from the III century BCE to the VII century CE, represent a body of evidence offering a rich and veritable picture of medical tradition over this thousand-year period.[3] Indeed, aside from literary fragments and adespota handbooks copied by professional scribes, practical medical texts constitute the largest group of surviving papyri. Thus, collections of drug recipes used by physicians and medical prescriptions written on single papyrus sheets attest to the wide variety of remedies circulating in Egypt at the time.

Among the medical papyri discovered and published so far, just a few of them – about 10 items – may be interpreted as medicine labels. These share formal and material features. Often the writing is concise and the small papyrus is expressly cut from a larger sheet of a particular thickness. According to the kind of information they contain, these labels on papyrus, parchment or ostraca may be divided in three categories: some of them carry only the name of a drug or medicine, others only the therapeutic indication introduced by pros (“against”) plus the name(s) of the disease(s) in accusative, reproducing the typical formula of the epangelia of the medical prescriptions. A third category displays both the therapeutic indication and the name of the medicinal substance, occasionally followed by the quantity. So, these last specimina have features more similar to actual recipes. A papyrus strip measuring 10,6 x 4 cm, P.Prag. III 249 (VII CE),[4] may serve as an exemplar of this category:

‘Against spreading ulcers. Of incense ounce(s)…’

Medicine label on papyrus (P.Prag. III 249), Prague, National Library P. Wessely, Prag. Gr. III 1204 v

In conclusion, in the everyday practice, these tags were attached to – or stored with – small containers or boxes for aromata and medicaments by the pharmacopolai, the apothecaries who were used to sell drugs and pharmaceutical products to the doctors. These inscribed labels likely identified the content of small jars or vases circulating on the trade-market: they are a surprising witness of both the medical practices and the commerce in the ancient world, as is concretely revealed by the dialogue between the archaeological and papyrological evidence survived from the telling silence of the past.

[1] The “unswept floor” mosaic asàrotos òikos is in the Gregorian Profane Museum (Vatican Museums). This detail is taken from L. Taborelli, Sulle ampullae vitreae. Spunti per l’approfondimento della loro problematica nell’ottica del rapporto tra contenitore e contenuto, ArchCl 44 (1992) 311, cf. pp. 326-7 for description and bibliography. For the entire mosaic see http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/x-Schede/MGPs/MGPs_Sala01_03.html#top.

[2] Editio princeps by A.E. Hanson, A Ptolemaic List of Aromata and Honey, TAPA 103 (1972) 161-6. For the image reproduced below see http://quod.lib.umich.edu/a/apis/x-1906.

[3] On medical papyri see, e.g., I. Andorlini, Prescription and Practice in Greek Medical Papyri from Egypt, in H. Froschauer-C.E. Römer (Hrsg.), Zwischen Magie und Wissenschaft, Ärzte und Heilkunst in den Papyri aus Ägypten. Katalog der Asstellung, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Wien 2007, 23-33.

[4] Editio princeps by R. Luiselli, Etichetta di sostanza medicinale (Gr. III 1204 verso), in R. Pintaudi-D. Rathbone (eds.), Papyri Graecae Wessely Pragenses (P.Prag. III), Firenze 2011, 157-8, from which the image is taken (Pl. XLVI).


Isabella Bonati is currently completing a Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Papyrology at the Department of Letters, Arts, History and Society (L.A.S.S.) of the University of Parma, Italy, where she is involved in research activities in the ERC project DIGMEDTEXT (Online Humanities Scholarship: A Digital Medical Library based on Ancient Texts). She holds a PhD in Papyrology from the University of Parma and she received an Yggdrasil grant 2012-2013 at the University of Oslo. Her main research interests are concerned with papyrology, especially lexical studies. Other research interests include classical philology, linguistics, archaeology, history of medicine. For list of her publications go here.

How to Make an Inca Mummy

Christopher Heaney


As any National Geographic reader will tell you, the Incas and their predecessors in the Andes made mummies, that category of deceased being whose selfhood is artificially or environmentally preserved. In the sixteenth century, however, learned Europeans weren’t sure of anything of the sort, given that ‘mummy,’ or momía, mostly referred to dried flesh of the ancient Egyptian dead that had been ground up to become a materia medica. Admitting the Incas to the Egyptians’ company meant an expansion of medical prowess, and civilization, well beyond the allowances of the day. In Les vrais pourtraits et vies des homes illustres grecz, latins et payens (1584), the French cosmographer André Thevet challenged Claude Guichard—a cataloguer of funerary customs who had claimed that the Andes yielded “mummy”

to ask merchants who deal at the Lyon merchant-fairs to enquire whether any of these good Mummies are found by these drug peddlers in these parts [Peru] and in that case (otherwise I presume that, had he known, he would never have dared publish such a lie) he will learn that there is no trace, any more than there is in his Lagnieu [Guichard’s hometown].

For Thevet, mummies came only from Egypt.

The burial of Huayna Capac Inka in Cuzco (379-380)
The body of Huayna Capac Inka, being carried from Quito to Cuzco. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

In other words, before we recover the sacred and medical indigenous recipe of how “ancient Peruvians” made mummies, we must understand how Europeans made mummies Peruvian. That latterly recipe, centuries in the crafting, had two key ingredients: the sixteenth century study by Spanish chroniclers and natural historians of the means by which skilled Inca made embalmed bodies—embalsamados—of their emperors; and the Atlantic celebration of that recipe by half-Inca chroniclers, English translators, and French encyclopedistes, who made embalsamados into mummies.[1]

That the Incas and other Andean peoples preserved their elite dead to make sacred and still-living ancestors, illapa, or mallqui, is well-established, having intrigued the earliest Spaniards to the Andes. In 1533, when the first two Spaniards to Cusco found the breathless bodies of Huayna Capac, the last undisputed emperor of the Incas, and a second person—likely his principal wife, Coya Cusirimay—they described them as “two Indians in the manner of embalmed dead.” By the late 1550s, the chronicler Juan de Betanzos had learned—possibly from his wife, Angelina Cuxirumay Ocllo, formerly betrothed to Atahualpa—that Huayna Capac’s lords “had him opened, and all his flesh removed, adorning him”— aderezándole, which implies the use of a substance—

“so that no damage would be done to him, without breaking a single bone; they adorned and seasoned him in the sun and the air, and after he was dried and seasoned, they dressed him in expensive clothes and placed him on a litter.”[2]

Subsequent Spaniards declared that this was embalming, a distinction that credited the Incas’ medical expertise—and possibly advertised the New World balsam that to this day bears the name “balsam of Peru”—but also limited speculation that their preservation resembled the grace of Europe’s saintly dead. To further control their meaning, the Spanish in 1559 confiscated the illapa and displayed the best-preserved among them in Lima’s most sophisticated center of European healing and botanical knowledge—the Hospital of San Andrés. Once there, the Jesuit natural historian José de Acosta studied them, deciding (1590) that their “astonishing” preservation owed to the use of a certain resin or bitumen: literally, betún, a word redolent of associations with the Egyptian dead.

November, month of carrying the dead (258-259)
The eleventh month, November; Aya Marq’ay Killa, month of carrying the dead. Felipe Guaman Poma, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615). Credit: Det Kongeliege Bibliotek

The Incas’ embalsamados only became mummies, however, through the process of celebration by their half-Inca heirs, and their interpreation by the English and French. In 1609, “El Inca” Garcilaso de la Vega remembered touching the finger of his great-uncle, Huayna Capac, which “seemed like that of a wooden statue, it was so hard and stiff.” Responding to Acosta, Garcilaso suggested that it was a combination of betún and the dry Andean environment, which the Incas had harnessed to “leave the bodies as whole as if they were still alive and in good health, lacking only the power of speech, as the saying goes.” The translator of Garcilaso into English in 1688 took the embalsamados to still greater heights, claiming that “these Bodies were more entire than the Mummies”—that is, the Egyptian dead. And in 1749, the French naturalist Jean-Marie Daubenton simply included the Inca dead as mummies, alongside those of the Egyptians.

Daubenton’s contemporaries had to take it on faith, however; the Inca illapa had long since disappeared, likely having deteriorated in Lima’s damp climate and been buried somewhere in the hospital. Hope remains that their bones might be someday be found, but until the means of their owners’ preservation is recovered via new archaeological studies of their contemporaries, our recipe for their making is as colonial and Atlantic as it is indigenous.


[1] This post draws from my recent dissertation, Christopher Heaney, “The Pre-Columbian Exchange: The Circulation of the Ancient Peruvian Dead in the Americas and Atlantic World” (Ph.D. Diss, University of Texas at Austin, 2016), Chapter Four.

[2] Juan de Betanzos, Suma y Narración de los Incas, Ed. María del Carmen Martín Rubio (Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 2010 [Cuzco: 1557]), 235 [1557: Pt. I, Ch. 48].

Wormy beer and wet nursing in the Roman Empire

Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, on a Attic black-figure amphora, sixth century BCE. Source: Wikipedia
Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, on a Attic black-figure amphora, sixth century BCE. Source: Wikipedia

As pointed out by Elaine Leong in a recent post, beer is a favourite topic at The Recipes Project. As a Belgian, I felt I should perhaps add something to the subject. As a classicist, however, I rarely encounter beer. Famously, the Greeks and Romans were wine drinkers, and considered beer a Barbarian beverage. Still, ancient medical texts do give us some information on beer. The pharmacologist Dioscorides (first century CE) describes two types of beer:

Beer (zuthos) it is prepared with barley. It is diuretic and has an effect on the kidneys and tendons. It is particularly harmful for the membranes [of the brain?]. It causes flatulence and produces bad humours, and it causes elephantiasis. Horn becomes easy to work when soaked in this drink.

The so-called kourmi is also prepared with barley; it is often drunk instead of wine. It causes headaches, is unwholesome and harmful to the nerves/sinews. In Western Spain and Britain, such drinks are also made with wheat. [Dioscorides, Materia Medica 2.87 and 88]

Clearly, Dioscorides is not selling these drinks to us. They cause all sort of troubles to those who consume them, some of which sound particularly unpleasant. While Dioscorides’ elephantiasis is most certainly not full-blown Proteus syndrome, its symptoms must have included painful swellings. In fact, the only positive property of beer according to the pharmacologist is to make horn malleable, which I guess is useful if you specialise in deer-antler carving. Interestingly, Dioscorides describes beer as a Celtic drink, omitting the fact that the Egyptians too were beer-drinkers.

Ancient Greek and Roman regimens and recipes rarely mention beer, which is no surprise when we consider Dioscorides’ view of the beverage. There is, however, one significant exception: the diet of the wet-nurse recommended by Antyllus, a second-century physician, whose precepts are preserved in the writings of Oribasius (fourth century CE). In the ancient world, arrangements between family members and neighbours to breastfeed each other’s children may have been common, but they have gone unrecorded. Paid wet-nurses, by contrast, may have been relatively exceptional, but they are well documented in written records. Hiring a wet-nurse was an expensive and difficult endeavour. Fortunately (or not, depending on one’s interpretation of the evidence), ‘experts’ were on hand to ditch out advice. Antyllus was one such expert. Here are his recommendations to deal with a wet-nurse’s insufficient milk supply:

[Recipe] to make the milk come abundantly in the breast: crush 5 or 6 worms that are found in the mud of the river, those that are called ‘the guts of the earth’; add dates, wine dregs, and rub together. Give it to the woman to drink in beer, telling her to wash herself and to fast beforehand. Give for 10 days and wonder at how abundant and good the milk is. [Oribasius, Libri incerti 34.6]

The Egyptian Nile on a Roman mosaic, Rome Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Laurence Totelin
The Egyptian Nile on a Roman mosaic, Rome Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. Photo: Laurence Totelin

‘Yum-yum’ I hear you say. Interestingly, beer and dates remain used as galactagogues to this day, preferably without added worms. Antyllus’ recipe is almost certainly Egyptian. As already mentioned, the Greeks and Romans did not drink beer, but the Egyptians did. Date palms did not bear their fruits to maturity in Greece and Italy, but they did in Egypt. The muddy river mentioned by Antyllus must be the Nile.

At the time of Antyllus, Egypt was under Roman rule, and Alexandria in the Delta of the Nile was a famous centre of medical knowledge, perhaps one where Antyllus himself studied. As it happens, wet-nurse contracts from Roman Egypt have survived (see here for an example), although they remain silent on the nurse’s diet and never mention worms.