Ancient Roman Facial Cream Found In London Excavation

It was touching to see a picture of the finger imprints in the pot – fingers that scooped facial cream out of it 2000 years ago. You wonder, was the owner a wealthy woman with servants to dress her, and fix her hair? Maybe a high-class prostitute? Or just a woman of the middle classes who’d splurged on a fancy cream for once? 

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The pot weathered two millennia with hardly any damage, an incredible find.  It was made of tin, considered a precious metal at the time. It was an expensive item, and the cream inside was likely the finest available. It must be said that when Liz Barham, curator at the Museum of London opened it, a powerful stench arose from the jar.

Hardly surprising. Cosmetic creams have always been formulated from fat, water, and something to blend the two. Today’s moisturizers are blended with fine vegetable oils, but in ancient Rome, it was animal fat, sometimes raw lanolin taken off sheep’s fleeces, and when they required something really fancy, gladiator’s sweat. Nothing likely to stay fragrant through the ages, although when fresh, it may have had rosewater added.

The tightly-sealed tin can was fished out of a ditch in Southwark, a busy London crossroads near the Thames. A Roman complex existed there that  housed two temples,  a hostel, an outdoor area that might have been used for mass worship, plinths for statues and a stone pillar. Given the religious character of the area, it’s easy to imagine  a scenario where a wealthy Roman and his wife or mistress went on pilgrimage, stayed at the guest house, and somehow mislaid the jar of cream. Maybe an envious servant stole it and stashed it in the ditch to come back for it later. The archaeologists who uncovered it say that it appears to have been deliberately hidden.

Federico Nappo, an expert on ancient Roman cosmetics of Pompeii, says, “It is likely that the cream contains animal fats. We know that the Romans used donkey’s milk as a treatment for the skin. However, it should not be very difficult to find out the cream’s composition.”

And indeed, the cream is undergoing scientific analysis today. We shouldn’t be startled if it was made of, among other things, oils of olive or almonds, honey, and perhaps fat taken from animals that had fought in the arena.

The well-brought-up Roman woman used kohl to outline her eyes, applied creams containing powdered lead to give their skin the treasured white hue, and rubbed perfume made from scented flowers macerated in oils. It was a delicate balance between looking good and looking too good to be respectable. Mummy portraits, pictures showing the deceased in life, show dramatically outlined eyes and brows, smooth skin free of freckles, and a demure expression.

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Philosophers of those times jeered at women who used cosmetics and perfumes, but the writer/poet Ovid wrote a long poem in favor of them, including five formulas for facial creams. Ovid’s moisturizers had innocuous ingredients such as barley, wild legumes, egg, powdered deer horn, spelt, and honey. “Any woman who uses this  on her face will shine smoother than her own mirror,” he wrote.

I’d be willing to try such a formula, if you can guarantee no animal fat, gladiator sweat, or another favorite ingredient – dung.

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