Science: The art of ancient Egypt

It's clear from wall-paintings that 4,000 years ago make-up was worn in the upper Nile. Now we find that skilled chemists created cosmetics for men, women and children - for health reasons
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The Independent Culture
WHEN CLEOPATRA seduced Mark Antony, she wielded powers subtler than piling stones into pyramids. Chief among the Queen's feminine wiles would have been the cosmetic arts.

Now scientists are also being attracted to the strong, dark lines of ancient Egyptian eye make-up. Studies are showing that the ancient Egyptians may have possessed a knowledge of complicated chemistry that was far further advanced than anyone previously suspected.

"For us it was very surprising that the Egyptians could create such complex chemical reactions without knowing the laws of chemistry," says Patricia Pineau, director of research communication for the cosmetics giant L'Oreal, which has spent two years analysing 4,000-year-old Egyptian cosmetics with scientists from the Louvre.

The 49 alabaster, wood and reed jars of make-up that form the focus of the study were brought back to France by Napoleon as part of the loot from his invasion of Egypt. Eventually the containers ended up in the subterranean storage vaults of the Louvre's laboratories.

What has baffled scientists is that the ancient Egyptians were using "wet" chemistry: chemical reactions involving moist, typically watery ingredients. It is commonly thought that most of wet chemistry's rules were not fully understood prior to the last few hundred years.

Pauline Martinetto, a student with the research laboratory of the Museums of France, says that we knew about ancient Egyptians using "fire" chemistry, employing heat and fire to manipulate materials, but the discovery of their use of wet chemistry was totally unexpected.

In an elementary way, most cooking involves wet chemistry. Mix eggs, flour, milk, cocoa and sugar, and you end up with a chocolate cake. Because the chemical reactions are quick, wet chemistry in cooking is easy to work out. The astonishing thing about the Egyptian wet chemistry is the long time it took to get a result, and the complex procedures necessary for success.

The Egyptians mixed salt water, lead oxide and sodium chloride to produce lead chloride crystals for eye make-up. The process took several weeks of filtering water and maintaining chemical balances.

"Without knowing much chemistry, how did they have the foresight to know that a chemical reaction started on one day would produce such and such a result after several weeks?" Ms Pineau wonders. "And everything had to be the same each day. Change one factor, and the product would have been ruined."

The compounds are far too rare in Egypt to have been supplied naturally over the eight centuries they were in use. Pauline Martinetto works among the hieroglyphs and microscopes in the maze of research labs beneath the Louvre. She says it was only recently that scientists had the time and tools to take a new look at these very old cosmetics. They also turned to a 2,000-year-old recipe from Greco-Roman texts, to re-create compounds similar to those found in Egyptian cosmetics. From this they speculate that the Romans may have been drawing on Egyptian knowledge.

The research team was also surprised to see how well-preserved the cosmetics were. As Marie Verdiere, a cosmetician working in a perfumery on the Champs- Elysees, explains, modern make-up is good only for about a year.

"After that, many lipsticks or creams will start to smell bad and will burn your skin if you try to use them," she says. Eventually the animal fats and other oils in make-up start to break down.

Part of the reason why the dry powders of the Egyptians' cosmetics have lasted as long as 40 centuries is that they were buried in the dry, dark air of ancient Egyptian tombs. Ms Pineau says that this highlights the importance of make-up for the ancient Egyptian woman - and indeed man. The tomb was meant to contain things needed to live well in the afterlife.

And people didn't take cosmetics to the grave just to look good in the world beyond. The make-up was used for its therapeutic value. Medical instructions on papyrus tell how the products were used for eye problems. This burgeoning ancient Egyptian pharmaceutical industry had more than a hundred prescriptions for the eyes alone.

Ms Pineau says that the medicinal value of cosmetics meant that men and children used the green, white or black make-up as well as women. Make- up was far from being just a female preserve.