Aug. 4, 2003 -- A little sheep grease here, a little lead powder there… long before Cover Girl and Maybelline entered the scene, ancient women used what they could to enhance their beauty.
And, as revealed by the finding last week of a 2,000-year-old cream from an ancient Roman site in London, people have been applying some sort of makeup to their faces for millenniums.
Researchers believe the cream, discovered where it had been stashed in a drain at an ancient Roman religious complex site in London, may have been a moisturizer derived from donkey milk. But the finger-smeared substance that had been preserved moist within a tight tin pot is still undergoing testing.
If confirmed to be a beauty aid, the ancient moisturizer would add to an already startling array of cosmetics collected from ancient Greco-Roman times.
"We've found lots of artifacts that suggest these people were quite concerned with their appearances," said Nansi Rosenberg, senior archaeological consultant on the London dig and staff archaeologist with the international construction consultant, EC Harris.
That Sheep Grime Glow
Two thousand years ago, Greco-Roman culture had reached a high level of sophistication, with a league of senators and councilmen sitting in government, advanced irrigation systems and regular public events, such as gladiator fights, athletic competitions and theater to entertain the masses.
"They were a very public society where appearances mattered," said Rosenberg.
In fact, the term cosmetic comes from the Greek word "cosmos," meaning order or arrangement. Ancient writings and recovered artifacts have revealed women could be quite creative when finding ways to touch up their looks.
One secret, for example, was extracting the sweat and dirt from sheep's wool to form the basis of a paling face cream.
"Basically they were getting lanolin," explained Jenny Hall, Roman curator at the Museum of London, referring to sheep's natural oil, still used in many cosmetics today.
For the lips, it was common for women of higher classes to dab red ochre to add a bit of color. Others took the dregs from red wine and use the slimy substance to add a reddish hue to the lips, according to Hall.
Enhancing the eyes was also important, says Hall, and to do this ancient Romans mixed bear's fat with lamp soot to create an eye liner and mascara. For a burnt orange accent, some elite smeared ground saffron (an expensive spice plucked from the buds of the saffron flower) on their eyelids.
A Toxic Pale
To offset their bright lips and dark eyes, it was important to ancient Roman ladies to appear pale. The cream found in the temple site in London may have been a whitening cream of sorts, but records show women tapped a range of sources to make their faces whiter. One source was particularly stringent — a white lead pigment, also known as ceruse.
Sally Pointer, an archaeologist and specialist in cosmetics history, says ceruse has been widely used for thousands of years — traces of it have been found from graves recovered in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), where civilizations first settled more than 6,000 years ago. And even though writings suggest people were aware of its dangerous properties thousands of years ago, the pigment remained popular.
In fact, Queen Elizabeth I was known to use the pigment and some historians attribute the famed English queen's pitted complexion to the toxic cosmetic.
"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," said Pointer. "Even today, lead is not uncommon in cosmetics, particularly in the Middle East."
There were other less toxic options for making the face pale. Pointer says some women patted dried crocodile dung on their faces. Others used chalk and the ground root of the orris, a type of iris, which can be poisonous.
A pale face, says Pointer, suggested an upper-class life of leisure spent away from the sun's harsh rays.
"While every historic period has had its own peculiar fashions or trends, some aspects of cosmetic use have remained relatively constant," she said. "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."
Tweezers and Ear Scoops
For the ancient Romans, looking good didn't stop at applying makeup. Archaeologists have found tools such as tweezers for trimming the brows and small scoops for cleaning out the ears. The devices were likely used by both men and women, says Rosenberg.
And while there are few references to ancient Roman men turning to makeup to brush up their appearance, Rosenberg points out there were gym-like centers with medicine balls, running tracks and javelins where men could go to work on their physiques.
"They also used the baths a lot," said Rosenberg. "Appearances were important to men as well."
As the ancient Roman writer, Plotinus, declared in A.D. 250, "This is the spirit that Beauty must ever induce: a wonderment and a delicious trouble, longing and love and a trembling that is all delight."
For that kind of attention, who wouldn't pat crocodile dung on her face?