Archaeologists say a 4,000-year-old bottle contains ancient red lipstick

By | March 18, 2024

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A small stone vial discovered in southeastern Iran contained a red cosmetic that archaeologists say was likely used as a lip color nearly 4,000 years ago.

The rare find is “probably the earliest” example of lipstick that has been scientifically documented and analyzed, the researchers reported in February in the journal Scientific Reports.

More than 80% of the sample analyzed consisted of minerals that produce a deep red color – mainly hematite. The mixture also contained manganite and braunite, which have dark shades, as well as trace amounts of other minerals and waxy substances made from vegetables and other organic substances.

“Both the intensity of the red-coloring minerals and the waxy substances are, surprisingly, fully compatible with contemporary lipstick recipes,” the study authors said.

It is not possible to rule out that the cosmetic was used in other ways, for example as a blusher, said lead study author Massimo Vidale, an archaeologist at the Department of Cultural Heritage at the University of Padua in Italy. But he said the homogeneous, deep red color, the compounds used and the shape of the bottle “suggested to us that it was used on the lips.”

It is one of the first examples of an ancient, red-colored cosmetic to be studied, he said, although it was not clear why cosmetic preparations that resembled lipstick were unusual in the archaeological record.

“For now we have no idea. The deep red color we found is the first we encountered, while several lighter colored foundations and eye shadows had previously been identified,” he said via email.

The substance found in the stone vial was made of several minerals, including hematite, shown in red.  - F. ZorziThe substance found in the stone vial was made of several minerals, including hematite, shown in red.  - F. Zorzi

The substance found in the stone vial was made of several minerals, including hematite, shown in red. – F. Zorzi

The use of hematite – ground red ocher – was documented on stone cosmetic palettes from the late Neolithic, as well as in ancient Egyptian cosmetic vessels, according to Joann Fletcher, a professor at the University of York’s department of archaeology. Whether the bottle from Iran was the first lipstick “all comes down to what this new discovery was actually used for,” she said.

“It is possible that the contents of the bottle were used as lip dye. But they could also have been applied to add color to the cheeks or for some other purpose, even though the bottle resembles a modern lipstick tube,” Fletcher, who was not involved in the study, said in an email.

It is “very likely” that the artefact was a lipstick, says Laurence Totelin, professor of ancient history at the School of History, Archeology and Religion at Cardiff University, who specializes in Greek and Roman science, technology and medicine.

“As the authors indicate, the recipe is no different from a modern recipe. The deep red color is also what we would expect from lip makeup,” Totelin, who was not involved in the study, said via email.

“That said, the ingredients are also commonly found in the preparation of ancient medicines, and the vial is in a shape that is not inconsistent with pharmaceutical use,” Totelin said.

Floods reveal artifacts

Other products previously unearthed in Egypt and the Middle East and studied by archaeologists include black Kohl eyeliners and lighter colored compounds used as eye shadow or foundation. Unlike other ancient cosmetics, the bottle’s concoction had a low lead content. This low level, the researchers suggested, could mean that the lipstick makers understood the dangers of consuming lead, a naturally occurring toxic metal that can cause numerous health problems.

“There is a long and heated debate among experts about the toxicity of lead compounds in cosmetics,” Vidale said.

Previous research on artifacts from the same region involving Vidale “suggests that 5,000 years ago white lead was the basic material for facial foundations, while the contents of our deep red preparation, supposedly intended for the lips, were virtually lead-free. It may have been a conscious choice,” he says.

The preparation contained quartz particles, derived from crushed sand or crystal, perhaps added, the study suggested, as a “shiny glistening agent” – although it was possible that they came from the inside of the vial itself, which was finely crafted from a greenish stone. called chlorite.

It’s also not clear what the original consistency of the cosmetic would have been: liquid or more solid, Vidale said.

“The slim shape and limited thickness of the bottle suggest that you could easily have held it in one hand, along with the handle of a copper/bronze mirror, while leaving the other hand free to hold a brush or other sort of applicator,” the study authors wrote. , citing an ancient Egyptian papyrus from the 12th century BC, which, as an example, depicts a young woman painting her lips in such a manner.

The artifact was among thousands of objects excavated from Bronze Age tombs and graves in the Jiroft region of Iran. The tombs – part of an ancient kingdom known as Marhasi – were uncovered and displaced in 2001 when a river flooded, after which their precious contents were looted and sold by locals. Many stone and copper objects, including the vial, were subsequently recovered by Iranian security forces.

The vial is kept at the National Archaeological Museum of Jiroft, where the team took samples.

“Like a bolt from the blue, this civilization was discovered … when a catastrophic flood hit the ancient burial grounds, exposing all kinds of archaeological treasures,” Vidale said.

“Now the region is well protected, but serious damage has been caused,” he added. “What we know today is that this was an advanced Mesopotamian civilization, a major player in long-distance trade and military ventures, that used its own writing system and was ruled by large cities and powerful, authoritative rulers. The rest is slowly emerging from new excavations.”

It is not clear who would have worn the lipstick – or in what context. “As far as we know, cosmetics were regularly deposited near the face of the deceased in the graves of that time,” Vidale said.

However, given the looting and destruction of the graves, researchers have been unable to link the artifact to specific human remains.

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