Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Smoky Eyes and Ruby Lips: Cosmetics in the World’s First Civilizations, an essay by Shauna Roberts

Historical novelist Shauna Roberts, an expert on daily life in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, is here today with an intriguing and informative essay on early cosmetics—showing, with many examples, that the pursuit of beauty and good health has been a constant over many millennia.  Her novel Like Mayflies in a Stream is published by Hadley Rille Books as part of its Archaeology Series, a set of historical novels of ancient times which are grounded in archaeological research.  Welcome, Shauna!


Smoky Eyes and Ruby Lips:
Cosmetics in the World’s First Civilizations
By Shauna Roberts

If you were to meet a woman from one of the earliest civilizations on the street today, it wouldn’t be her makeup that gave her away. Archaeologists have discovered that women of ancient times wore eyeliner, eyeshadow, lip color, and cheek color and used potions to soften their skin, both to look beautiful and for good health.

Eye makeup. In ancient Sumer (now southern Iraq) and ancient Egypt, everyone—men, women, children, babies—wore kohl eyeliner. Kohl dates back to at least 3500 B.C.E., and the formula has remained much the same for 5500 years. Kohl is composed of finely ground-up galena (lead sulfide), sometimes with additives such as finely powdered herbs, pearls, gemstones, charred organic materials (such as frankincense, a tree resin), or other lead compounds.

The Sumerians and Egyptians wore kohl for two reasons: They believed kohl protected their eyes from disease and themselves from the evil eye. Today, fear of the evil eye is founded in the belief that some people have the power to harm others just by looking at them.

Canopic lid jar showing Tutankamun with
heavily kohled eyes and reddened lips
In prehistoric Sumer, though, the evil eye was at first an actual eye disease—conjunctivitis (“pink eye”). Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the cover of the eyeball and can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or even an irritation. Only later did the evil eye become the subject of superstition.

Ancient people believed that kohl protected the eyes in a second way, by reducing the harsh glare common in the deserts of Sumer and Egypt. Today, baseball and football players sometimes wear a greasy dark substance called “eye black” under their eyes, believing it will reduce glare.

Kohl became a beauty aid, serving triple duty as eyeliner, mascara, and dark eyeshadow. The Sumerians and Egyptians made green eyeshadow as well by grinding up malachite or another copper oxide and mixing the powder with water or a sticky gum, which was then applied with a stick. Among the Egyptians, men and women of all socioeconomic levels wore a heavy coating of color around the eyes.

Ancient Egyptian makeup containers and applicators

Judging from archaeological remains, the Sumerians used many colors of cosmetics—white, black, yellow, red, and blue. Archaeologists have found many shells with pigments still in them. Among the riches in the tomb of Pu-abi, Queen of Ur, were “shells” made of gold and a cosmetics container made of ivory inlaid with lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone.

Lip and cheek color. “Ruby lips” were not a metaphor in ancient Sumer. Five thousand years ago, wealthy Sumerian women started using crushed semiprecious stones to color their lips. The lip color found in Queen Pu-abi’s tomb was composed of red rocks ground to a powder mixed with poisonous white lead to make it spreadable.

Dried, ground henna leaves
Henna (the processed, powdered leaves of the shrub Lawsonia inermis) was also used to stain the lips.

In the Indus Valley (today’s western India), women painted their lips red. Archaeologists do not yet know what the paint was made of.

Naturally reddish materials such as iron oxide (rust) and red and orange clays were probably used in many places in the ancient world to color lips and sometimes cheeks. Today, some cosmetic companies still use iron oxide and clay in some of their products.

Bust of Nefertiti, showing her with heavily
kohled eyes and slightly reddened lips
In ancient Egypt, women (and sometimes men) colored their lips in a variety of ways. As in Sumer, some used henna.

A lip color used in Egypt contained iodine and bromine mannite, both extracted from seaweed. Iodine is a component of the hospital antiseptic Betadine, whose staining, brownish-red color may give us an idea of what Egyptian lips looked like. Both iodine and bromine mannite can be poisonous when taken by mouth. Some women who used this mixture on their lips likely died...and possibly so did some of the men who kissed them.

Other Egyptians used a crimson or scarlet dye that was extracted from pregnant female scale insects (such as insects from the genus Kermes) by crushing them. Only the wealthy could afford this extract: Tens of thousands of insects had to be crushed to produce a pound of extract. If you find the use of crushed insects for beautification unsettling, read the ingredients on your lipsticks and any processed pink, purple, or red foods in your pantry. “Carmine” and “cochineal extract” are made from crushed New World scale insects called cochineal (Dactylopius coccus).

Modern woman's hand,
stained with henna

Other cosmetics, briefly. In Egypt, henna was used to temporarily color hair and to stain fingernails. Surprisingly, henna seems not to have been used as body art in ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt. Only in the late Bronze Age do archaeologists find evidence for women painting designs on their palms and soles with henna; the custom was widespread around the Mediterranean. Much later, about 700 C.E., body decoration with henna spread to India, where it remains tremendously popular today.

Because both Sumer and Egypt were deserts, people needed to use oils and balms to protect their lips and skin from drying out. Honey softened dry skin. Egyptians made concoctions containing beeswax; goose fat and other animal fats; and vegetable oils such as castor oil and olive oil. The Sumerians likely used flaxseed oil early on; later in Mesopotamia, people began growing sesame and extracting the oil from the seeds.

The cosmetics discussed so far are not so different from what we’re used to. Some of them are still in use today. However, one Egyptian custom would turn heads if practiced today: the perfumed head cone. The Egyptians made cleanliness and smelling good a high priority. They bathed daily, and perfumes were big business. Ancient paintings show guests, musicians, and servants wearing white cones of perfumed wax or grease on top of their heads at parties. Archaeologists believe these cones slowly melted over the course of the party and dripped down the face and body. The wearer ended up with a glowing face and perfumed skin as well as, presumably, a wig and clothes that needed thorough cleaning the next day. Thank goodness that custom has gone out of practice.


Shauna Roberts has a Ph.D. in anthropology and has taught classes on ancient Mesopotamia at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of California at Riverside. Her historical novel Like Mayflies in a Stream (Hadley Rille, 2010) takes place in ancient Sumer in the time of Gilgamesh, and her historical romance Claimed by the Enemy, forthcoming in April, is set in ancient Sumer and Susa in the time of Sargon the Great. She is currently working on another historical novel set in ancient Mesopotamia. Her website and blog can be found at


  1. Interesting post about the cosmetics in the ancient world.

  2. Thanks, Sarah. I hope your readers enjoy it.

  3. The subject of adornment through the ages has always fascinated me. Thank you for supplying today's mini-obsession! :)

  4. Thanks, LAURALEE and ROZ, for stopping by and commenting.

  5. Hi, Shauna! The more things change, the more they stay the same. I wonder how many of our current "mineral" cosmetics mimic ancient formulas? ~ Pam C.

    1. ARYNWY, I had the same question while writing this essay, so I looked at the ingredient list for several brands of mineral cosmetics. Several list only a subset of their ingredients; of the ones that listed ingredients, iron oxide was common. (I also found it in the ingredients of non-mineral cosmetics.) Other oxides were common in the mineral cosmetics and some were available in the ancient world, but nothing jumped out at me as being in the ancient cosmetics. An article I read about mineral cosmetics listed some possible ingredients, and gold was one of them. The ancients did sometimes add gold to their makeup. Obviously, gold, like ground-up gems, was for the very wealthy only.

  6. Good data for writers. I've always loved the word kohl, too. It has such a lovely exotic sound to it.

    1. Me too, CHARLES! Not only an exotic sound, but also it feels good to say it. It gives me a thrill to think that I can walk into a Middle Eastern store and buy the same eyeliner that Gilgamesh and Sargon the Great and Hatshepsut and Cleopatra wore. 5000 years of continuity.