Cosmetics of the West

The Londinium ointment

Evershed, R. P., R. Berstan, F. Grew, M. S. Copley, A. J. H. Charmant, E. Barham, H. R. Mottram, and G. Brown. “Archaeology: Formulation of a Roman Cosmetic.” Nature 432, no. 7013 (November 4, 2004): 35–36.

80% of the extant composition was determined:

  • 15% stannic acid (tin oxide IV)

  • Ruminant fat (bovine, goat) and starch in 1:1 ratio

The missing 20% was not identified, most likely due to degradation of original ingredient. But there is still hope if this ointment is re-analyzed using current technology. I am especially interested in knowing if the fat was "sweetened" using one of methods mentioned by Pedanius Dioscorides in "De Materia Medica"

Recreated Londinium ointment (with perfumed beef suet) and the look on skin (1 - lead white base in lard base with starch (6th century China recipe from Qimin Yaoshu (齊民要術)) - reference sample; 2 - safe lead white alternative (titanium dioxide) in lard base (modified from 6th century China recipe from Qimin Yaoshu (齊民要術)) (starch and ground pearls); 3 - Londinium ointment (2nd century)

The ‘medicinal’ ointment from the containers from British Museum

Stacey, R. J. “The Composition of Some Roman Medicines: Evidence for Pliny’s Punic Wax?” Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry 401, no. 6 (October 2011): 1749–59.

Comparison of ingredients in extant and redacted ointments

Prepared Punic beeswax is very brittle

The effect on skin

Dyer’s madder (Rubia tinctorum) lake # 1

Bejarano Osorio, Ana M., Macarena Bustamante-Álvarez, José V. Navarro Gascón, Susanna Marras, and Ángela Arteaga Rodríguez. “Archaeological and Archaeometrical Study of the Cosmetic Remains Contained in a Malacological Pyxis from Augusta Emerita (Mérida, Badajoz).” Sagvntvm. Universitat de Valencia, 2019.

Madder lake found during excavations in Augusta Emerita, 2019

Madder lake from pre-soaked roots of Rubia tinctorum precipitated on alum (aluminum sulfate) with washing soda (sodium carbonate). The roots were soaked for several weeks, with daily changes of water.

The ground and sieved madder lake, and the look on skin (on the Londinium base)

The madder lake # 2 from Rubia tinctorum

Pérez-Arantegui, J., Gemma Cepriá, E. Ribechini, I. Degano, M. Colombini, Juan Ángel Paz-Peralta and Esperanza Ortiz-Palomar. “Colorants and oils in Roman make-ups–an eye witness account.” Trends in Analytical Chemistry 28 (2009): 1019-1028.

The original cosmetic was found on a tool which was most likely used for mixing the dye in the base of fragrant oil and animal fat. It formed a smooth colored ointment.

Roman cosmetic tool

(length 12.8 cm), probably 5th

century CE, found in the colony of Vitrix-Iulia-Celsa (Zaragoza, Spain).

This lake was made without presoaking the roots. Both colorants, alizarin and purpurin, are present in this case. Colorants are precipitated on aluminum oxide with sodium carbonate (washing soda). I used 5 parts of beef suet base (prepared and scented according to Dioscorides), 1 part of the late Gallo-Roman perfume (version 1.2) and a pinch of salt as preservative. The final result on skin prepared with lead white replacement base is an appealing shade of warm pink which can be easily layered for a more intense color. This is my favorite rouge for early medieval look.

Filtering the lake

Dried dye

Mixing with fragrant oil and prepared beef suet

In a shell case

On skin prepared with lead white replacement base

The madder lake # 3 from Rubia tinctorum

Pérez-Arantegui, J., Gemma Cepriá, E. Ribechini, I. Degano, M. Colombini, Juan Ángel Paz-Peralta and Esperanza Ortiz-Palomar. “Colorants and oils in Roman make-ups–an eye witness account.” Trends in Analytical Chemistry 28 (2009): 1019-1028.

"powders contained in a colorless glass unguentarium, identified as a probable Ising 10 form (a globular unguentarium), was also found in the ancient Roman colony of Celsa. Its archaeological context must be situated in the middle of the 1st century CE.’’

Again, this lake was made without the root pre-soaking step. Madder lake was precipitated on aluminum silicate with calcium carbonate and thinned with gypsum to a pale pink color. Since the original powder was found in a globular unguentarium, I ordered a replica from the Historical Glassworks to match the extant find.

Ground and sieved lake

Lake after thinning with gypsum, in an Greek replica container and in the globular unguentarium.

Adapting Caterina Sforza lead white base to safer version

Pasolini, Pier Desiderio. 2011. Caterina Sforza. Documenti. Vol. 3. Nabu Press.

The original recipe calls for olio di violetto which most probably can be identified with cold maceration of iris rhizomes (Iris pallida x germanica) in sweet almond oil. Powdered iris rhizomes are supposed to be macerated for 40 days in the sun. The lead white is worked into a smooth powder and mixed with the oil.

The version with zinc oxide crumbled on skin. The version with titanium dioxide and starch was smooth in application but looked too white when compared to the reference sample made with lead white.

The best replacement is made with titanium dioxide and almond oil, with added starch and mica (to dilute the whiteness and provide smoothness). Additionally, mica seems to add similar kind of 'greasiness' which is typical of pure lead white preparations and helps to stick to skin. The mica is cosmetic grade fine powder and doesn't add too much shine (it is a popular filler in modern high-end makeup). For application, I make it into an emulsion with home distilled rosewater and apply with a piece of linen cloth (natural sponge wetted in rosewater works too).

Makeup base mixed with rosewater and ready for application

It gives a nice fair skin effect without flaking

Lead white replacement foundation (in beef suet base), fake galena in beeswax/oil base, madder lake rouge in scented oil/beef suet base, saffron extract eye shadow, hematite lip stain (type of red iron oxide) in beeswax/oil base.