Ointment, ointment, make-up, perfume, hair dye… In order to better understand the chemical composition of cosmetic products used during the Roman period and to uncover the secrets of their manufacture, 144 samples of archaeological products were analysed between 2005 and 2008 by teams from the Centre de recherche et de restauration des Musées de France (C2RMF, CNRS / Ministry of Culture and Communication) and L'Oréal Recherche. Taken from different supports (glass bottles, clay blush jars…) and helped by ancient texts of chemistry and botany, they reveal the secrets of a history of beauty, at the origin of our current practices and the cosmetics industry.
Lead and its compounds
The formulators of the time mastered lead chemistry perfectly, although the effects of its toxicity are already known. This metal and its compounds are found in the composition of many products such as the white blush used to enhance the complexion or this cream made of lead carbonate contained in a balsam of the 3rd century. Also is revealed this technique of hair coloring in black by the application of a mixture of lead oxide and lime, dangerous and definitive practice because the hair blackens thanks to the formation of crystals of galena.
Review of the main raw materials used ,
For body hygiene :
- Pumice stone: used, just like aryballe and strigile, to make the skin softer when bathing.
- Natural alum and honey: for a good deodorant
- Goat tallow and beech ash for the production of a quality soap
For obtaining aromatic substances :
- Flowers (pink, lily, fragrant jong, lavender, marjoram)
- Tree resins (rosin, mastic)
- Spices (cinnamon, saffron)
For the manufacture of ointments, creams, ointments :
- Basic vegetable oils: olive, ben nuts, palm, poppy and almond
- Orpiment (arsenic sulfide) used in certain depilatory creams
To be proud, a whole palette of colors and ingredients :
- Carbon black (charcoal, soot, resin, pine leaf ash, dates) for eye and eyelid make-up
- Galena (lead sulfide) to highlight eyelids and eyebrows in black
- Egyptian blue, synthetic pigment prepared from a mixture of limestone sand, ash and copper heated to 850°C
- Gypsum, chalk and kaolin for grey shadows
- Red or ochre iron oxide, to make a red or pink blush by a mixture with a white pigment
- Yellow ochre, obtained with goethite rich clay, yellow iron oxide
- Pink lacquered pigment, made from aluminium compounds and dyes extracted from madder roots, orcanette, sorrel or kermes.
If these exhibitions show magnificent objects related to the ritual of the toilet or architectural ensembles such as the recently restored frigidarium of the thermal baths of Lutèce, and analyze the products of the time, they reveal above all a knowledge and gestures of beauty, still present today in our bathrooms.
Bath and Mirror catalogue of the exhibition available in bookshops and on the Internet, collective work under the direction of Isabelle Bardiès-Fronty, Michèle Bimbenet-Privat and Philippe Walter, published by Gallimard in partnership with RMN éditions, 354 p., 49 €.
Exhibition Le Bain et le Miroir, body care and cosmetics from Antiquity to the Middle Ages until 21 September 2009 at the Musée de Cluny - Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris. Exhibition Le Bain et le Miroir, body care and cosmetics at the Renaissance until 21 September 2009 at the Musée Nationale de la Renaissance - Château d'Ecouen, Val d'Oise.