Egyptian Cosmetic Vessels

From the Charles Ede weekly Bulletin
May 12, 2020

This week I would like us all to take a little step back in time, to ancient Egypt, and more specifically, to the private quarters of the Egyptian citizens as they prepare themselves for the day ahead. Both the men and women of ancient Egypt decorated their faces with makeup, most markedly with the long, elegantly tapered black lines which framed their eyes. The emphasis on aesthetic enhancement was as important for a man as a woman, and both genders had lavish cosmetic sets to contain and apply the pastes and powders which created that instantly recognisably Egyptian 'look'. The lavishness of these cosmetic sets increased or decreased according to status and wealth.
The vessels offered by Charles Ede just hint to the array of colours and materials on display at the 'vanity tables' of the ancient Egyptians. Imagine these vessels punctuated by the green of the malachite powder and the white of the cerussite used as eyeshadows, or the red ochre pigment intended to rouge lips and cheeks, not to mention the deep, lustrous black kohl so well-associated with Egyptians. Indeed, eyes without makeup were thought to be vulnerable to the Evil Eye itself.
Though we now associate the use of makeup with more aesthetic qualities, the daily ritual of make-up application also had a more practical purpose. The Egyptian would start by taking a grinding palette, often made of schist and either zoopomorphic in shape or with a detailed border. They would grind down galena, also known as kohl, on the palette and then mix it with an unguent that detracted flies and kept infectious bacteria at bay. This paste was deposited into a small jar, perhaps of white alabaster, lustrous black haematite, or a cool blue anhydrite. A tapered wand was dipped into this jar, and the black kohl mixture applied around the eyes. Its popularity was in part due to the aesthetics, in part to the medicinal value, but it also worked as a shield to the sun’s glare; ancient sunglasses if you will. Even in today’s world we see all these of these uses at play. Simply look to our own country for kohl's use as an aesthetic enhancement, to the American footballers who apply thick black lines to their cheekbones to reduce glare, and to India where little children have blackened eyes to keep infectious insects away.
I will leave you this week with five facts that you might not have known about Egyptian cosmetics:

  1. Men and women used henna to stain their nails yellow; both the length and colour was a sign of social status
  2. There are records showing evidence of wages being paid in cosmetics
  3. They wore an eye glitter made from iridescent beetle shells
  4. The mineral malachite has protective properties which prevented infection, hence the Egyptians applied it from lash line to brow.
  5.  The most popular liquids for turning powders into pastes were animal fats

Egyptian serpentine kohl jar on stand
Middle Kingdom, c.2050-1650 BC
Height 5.5cm
Provenance: Albert Newall, South Africa, exported to UK 1970s, thence by descent



Egyptian calcite kohl jar 
Old Kingdom-Middle Kingdom, c.2686-1650 BC
Height 6.4cm
Provenance: William Edward James (1907-1984), London and Sussex, UK, by descent from a collection formed late 19th-early 20th century


Egyptian haematite kohl wand
Middle Kingdom-New Kingdom, c.2055-1069 BC
Length 7.4cm
Provenance: Maurice Bouvier, Alexandria, Egypt, exported to Switzerland 1959, thence by descent



Egyptian schist palette
Predynastic, c.3500-3200 BC
Dimensions 14.4x7.4cm
Provenance: Marianne Maspero, Paris, France, acquired 1980

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