Director’s Pit

Views Of The Archaeological Landscape


by Kevin Fromings, Ba(hons) Ma

Roman pot containing 2,000-year old cream or ointment, complete with finger prints. Photograph: Anna Branthwaite /AP

It was announced quite a while back, in the national press, that chemists have finally analysed the white substance found in a sealed container excavated during an archaeological dig in the city of London. The vessel in question was a 3rd century cosmetic jar, still with its original contents, and containing the evidence of two fingers (well, I hope it was the imprints and not the fingers themselves). The substance is intact but the fingers are, obviously, missing. So just cold cream then… otherwise it would have been one hell of a cold case to investigate!

Scientists declared that indeed, it was a face cream, as used by a ‘Roman’ lady. Someone moneyed, at any rate… otherwise it would have been a pot of mud… which, we all know, works at ground level. There are three basic ingredients to the ancient concoction, which is not unlike similar creams in use today. The primary content being… lard. Yes, there you have it in a nutshell (it wasn’t actually in a nutshell, it was in a sealed container).

Women used to rub lard into their skin to stop the wrinkles appearing. Nowadays we would probably substitute it for vegetable oil, but 1800 years ago animal fat was easier to come by. At least in this instance they appear not to have discovered whale products, otherwise we would sitting here wondering what a whale was… there wouldn’t have been so many David Attenborough Blue Planet documentaries, that’s for sure. A sea without whales would be a tragedy (especially if done on porpoise), but that’s what happens when humans believe an animal-based product is useful; they hunt to extinction.

One of the other ingredients in the face cream was tin oxide. It is this that suggests to researchers that the woman was Roman, rather than Romano-British. Roman women of darker complexions used the tin oxide to lighten their skins, whereas those of paler Celtic extraction used creams containing iron oxide to give their faces a more colourful hue. Now we know what the inhabitants of ‘Love Island’ use to give themselves that newly rusting look…

Example of a Roman woman

The final ingredient was starch, which helped to thicken the concoction. Who knows, it may have acted like a form of botox too (hence no one seems to smile in Roman portraits). Having analysed the contents, the chemists at the University of Bristol replicated the mixture. Then tried it on themselves. They were going to use it on Boris Johnson, but found they hadn’t made enough. To quote from the journal ‘Nature’:

Although it felt greasy initially, owing to the fat melting as a result of body heat, this was quickly overtaken by the smooth, powdery, texture created by the starch.”

Interestingly, they do not mention the smell. I assume that the general aroma pervading Roman towns was of animal waste in the poorer quarters, and pork crackling in the upper class districts. The lower classes, of course, would have had to make do with whatever they could get. I suspect that the nearest they would come to fine grade ‘beef dripping’ would be to stick their face in a cow’s arse and hope for the best…

Also, I would hazard a guess that the higher born ladies were continually followed by stray dogs, looking forward to a tasty dinner. If a Roman chap saw a woman with skin like silk, and started drooling or licking his lips, was he thinking about how beautiful she was, or was he thinking about his breakfast?

Anyone for pork crackling?

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