Ancient Egyptian make-up
Sample of galena, kohl container, and mummy cartonnage, Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptian men and women of all social classes took body care very seriously. They used things we would easily recognise such as eye make-up, tweezers, razors, perfume, wigs, toothpaste and breath freshener.
Dark eye-make up, known as mesdemet, was particularly common. It was considered attractive and pleasing to the gods although it was also thought necessary for health reasons: repelling the small flies that carried disease and infections, and also blocking the sun's glare. One substance used was galena, a lead sulphide that came from a mine near the Red Sea. It is ironic that its intended protective qualities were often undermined by the toxicity of its lead component. Another substance was antimony, which occurs naturally in the soft form of stibnite. The naturalist Pliny the Elder called antimony platyophthalmos, meaning 'wide-eye' due its cosmetic effect of enlarging and beautifying the eye by making the whites appear whiter.
Either galena or stibnite are ground up to a powder and mixed with copper oxide and gum resins and other ingredients to form kohl, the most widespread black cosmetic of North Africa, the Middle East, Anatolia and South Asia. Kohl (derived from an Arabic word meaning 'brightens the eyes') was kept in special containers like this alabaster pot, which possibly dates to Dynasty XII in the Middle Kingdom (1991–1802 BC). William Matthew Flinders Petrie excavated it at Qaw el-Kebir in Upper Egypt in 1923. The mummy head from Thebes, made of layers of linen or papyrus tightly pressed and glued together to fit closely over the embalmed body (date unknown), illustrates the use of kohl to line the eyes and create the characteristic 'cat's eye' flick at the outside corners.