From time to time, I read up about cosmetics and skin care in ancient times just to feed my nerdy side. Every so often when I am going through museums, I see them. I blogged about an ancient Egyptian Kohl eyeliner case back in 2016 when I was at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The MET) in New York – read about that here.
I was in Greece with my partner last year to celebrate our 13th year anniversary. We reached Heraklion in Crete on the last leg of our journey around the Greek Islands. It was late afternoon and we spent our time roaming around Heraklion Archeological Museum.
This is where I saw these pyxides. A Pyxis (pl. pyxides) is a cylindrical vessel in the classical world that were used to store cosmetics. Pyxides come in different designs, materials and colors – depending where they came from. Some are made of wood, Ivory, metals – the one above is made from clay found in Chersonessos during the Hellenistic period around the 3rd century B.C. Chersonessos was an ancient Greek colony located on the shores of the Black Sea in the outskirts of what is now called, Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula.
I first became aware of these “pyxides” when I read about them in Lisa Eldridge’s book (published in 2015), “FACE PAINT, The Story Of Makeup”. I had forgotten about them until I saw these clay pots in the Heraklion Archeological Museum. And I told myself, “I’ve seen these before.” I was about to turn a corner in the museum when I a lightbulb went “on” in my head.
The white “tablets” that you see inside the pyxis seen here is made of white lead powder.
As we all know, lead is highly toxic – but during ancient times its deadly properties were unknown. White powder made from lead was used well into the 18th century – in the courts of Europe, inside the royal palace of China, even in the okiya of Geishas in Kyoto – which lead to several beauty and health issues.
According to Lisa’s book, it was Theophrastus (the father of botany), who was able to describe the process of how this “white lead” was processed in ancient Greece.
“The Greeks made their own skin lightener from lead carbonate, as Greek philosopher, and observer of chemistry, Theophrastus describes in his treatise On Stones:
Lead is placed in an earthen vessel over sharp vinegar and after it has acquired some thickness of a kind of rust, which it commonly does in about ten days, they open the vessels and scrape it off. They then place the lead over the vinegar again , repeating over and over again the same process of scraping it till it is wholly gone. What has been scraped off they then beat to a powder and boil (with water) for a long time and what settles to the bottom of the vessel is white lead.”
Being curious about the process, I found an online resource of Theophrastus‘ book “On Stones” here http://farlang.com/books/theophrastus-on-stones-translation-into-english. The process is discussed from page 187 – 191.
It was written on Theophrastus‘ book that various shapes of these powders were found in various compact shapes inside “Closed bowls” in the graves of ladies and girls – this was a clear indication that it was used as cosmetics. I could not find any source though of how this was applied though. I guess they would have to ground these “tablets” into fine powders with a mortar and pestle and apply it using a sort of sponge or puff or even fingers.
So the next time you are in a museum and interested in “ancient makeup” – make a beeline for the Greek, Roman or Egyptian exhibits and you might find some interesting early form of cosmetics and you’ll realize that painting one’s face is not a modern thing.
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