A Roman-era container of white cosmetic cream, found during an archaeological dig in London, offers a glimpse at vanity 2,000 years ago, when a pale, even complexion apparently was the rage.
Richard Evershed, a chemist at the University of Bristol, analyzed the cream’s ingredients and recreated the ancient recipe, which consisted mainly of rendered animal fat and starch that was probably obtained from boiling grains. “It shows a surprising degree of technological sophistication,” he says, noting that the color came from a white tin oxide which was almost certainly synthetic. In Rome, a similar pigment was made by dissolving lead shavings in vinegar. The London cream, found at the far fringe of the Roman Empire, may contain tin instead because it was more locally available. Making this substitution required smelting tin, heating it at very low temperatures in open air to eliminate color impurities, and then cooling it slowly to obtain the pure white oxide. “It could not be all a home recipe because of the complex technology involved,” says Evershed. So the tin could have been obtained in from traveling merchants, or perhaps the cream was manufactured in large batches and then distributed.
Francis Grew, curator of archaeology at the Museum of London where the tin is now on display, is struck by how little cultural attitudes toward makeup have changed in the past two millennia. “There are a number of satirical literary references poking fun at how long some women took to put on their makeup or at how terrible they looked without it,” he says. “But this is the first time we’ve found the real thing.”