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Recreating a 2,000-year-old cosmetic

November 3, 2004 By Katharine Mansell This article courtesy of Nature News.

Ancient cream gave Roman aristocrats a pale complexion.

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A sealed Roman pot, unearthed at an archaeological dig in London, caused much speculation about its 2,000-year-old contents when it was opened in front of the media last summer.

Initial guesses about the function of the white cream inside ranged from toothpaste, to a pharmaceutical product, to something that was smeared on goats before they were killed. But chemists who have analysed the cream now conclude that it was probably a high-class cosmetic, with a function similar to that of modern foundations.

The six-centimetre-wide canister, currently on display in the Museum of London, was discovered in July 2003 by Pre-Construct Archaeology at the site of a Roman temple complex dedicated to the god Mars Camulus. It dates from approximately 150 AD.

"It's a bit of a one-off finding an organic material inside a closed container in such a high state of preservation," says Richard Evershed from Bristol University, UK, who led the research team. "It allows you not only to characterize the diverse chemical components, but also to quantify them."

The contents were so well preserved (you can still see finger marks in the cream) that the team was able to recreate the product from fresh ingredients.

Rub it in

When you add the tin you get a translucent, white cream.
Chemist Richard Evershed
Bristol University, UK
The researchers report in this week's Nature that the two major components, each making up about 40% of the total, were starch and animal fat, which probably came from the carcass of a cow or goat1.

They think the starch was added to reduce the greasy feeling of fat on the skin. It is still used for the same purpose today in body lotions and hand creams.

The original cream is harder and more granular than the replica, but Evershed suspects that this is down to centuries of microbial action; the fat is likely to have changed most.

The remaining ingredient was synthetic tin oxide (or cassiterite). Although it is greyish in its natural state, it would have coloured the cream white. "If you mix the starch and fat together, you get quite a nice hand cream, but when you add the tin you get a translucent, white cream," says Evershed.

In the Roman world, white complexions were what everybody sought.
Curator Francis Grew
Museum of London, UK
Francis Grew, curator at the Museum of London, agrees that the tin was probably added as a pigment. “Just as we like tanned skin, in the Roman world, white complexions were what everybody sought,” he says.

The cream is reasonably sophisticated, with coverage comparable to that of modern cosmetics, Evershed told news@nature.com, while rubbing the replica cream into his hand. A scar on his knuckle disappeared under his new, paler complexion.

"It may be that we are looking at the equivalent of a Space NK product," says Grew. "The container is quite a classy piece of work as well: you're looking at quite a posh piece."

References

  1. Evershed R. P., et al. Nature, 432. 35 - 36 (2004).

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