Recipes of Ancient Egyptian makeup more diverse than previously thought

A new study published in the Journal Scientific Reports has revealed that the recipe for Kohl was more diverse than previously thought.

Kohl, a dark eye cosmetic has been worn traditionally since the Protodynastic Period of Egypt by Egyptian queens and noble women. Kolh was not only applied for aesthetic reasons, but also for hygienic, therapeutic, and religious functions.

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It is also widely used in the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, West Africa, and the Horn of Africa as eyeliner to contour and/or darken the eyelids and as mascara for the eyelashes. The contents of kohl and various ways to prepare it differ based on tradition and country.

Researchers analysed the contents of 11 kohl containers from the Petrie Museum in London, covering a broad range of locations and periods from Ancient Egypt.

The samples were screened using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), followed by Electron Microscopy/Energy Dispersive X-Ray Spectroscopy (SEM/EDS), Powder X-Ray Diffractometry (PXRD) and Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS). This allowed the team to characterise the inorganic and organic component materials and formulate the recipes used to produce Kohls.

The resulting data reveals that kohls were heterogeneous mixtures divided into three main groups based on the results of the FTIR analyses: (1) inorganic dominant, (2) mixed organic and inorganic, and (3) unknowns.

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From an inorganic perspective, chemical analyses in the last few decades have identified a predominance of galena and other lead-based compounds in black kohls. The new study identified eight minerals previously not found in ancient kohl: biotite, paralaurionite, lizardite, talc, hematite, natroxalate, whewellite and glushinskite, in addition to silicon-based, manganese-based and carbon-based lead specimens.

The study also represents the first systematic study of organic components in kohls. It yielded six  specimens that likely consist predominantly of organic materials such as plant oils and animal-derived fat. Taxonomically distinctive ingredients identified included Pinaceae resin and beeswax. All these findings point towards more varied recipes than initially thought and significantly shift our understanding of Ancient Egyptian kohls.

Scientific Reports

Header Image – Ancient Egyptian women wearing kohl, from a tomb mural in Thebes – Image Credit : Public Domain

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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