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Ancient Egyptian Mummy Head Shows Woman Had Skin Condition Due to Beauty Practice

Ancient Egyptian Mummy Head Shows Woman Had Skin Condition Due to Beauty Practice

A 3,500-year-old mummified woman’s head shows signs of a skin condition from bleaching. The woman may have been prominent in Egyptian society and was 20 to 25 years old when she died, researchers report.

The identity of the woman is not known, but tiny nodules under her cheeks and on the back of her neck resemble a skin disorder known today as exogenous ochronosis. Despina Moissidou, a Greek anthropologist, told Discovery News that “such dermatosis is caused by the extensive use of skin-bleaching cosmetics.”

Chemical analysis of the nodule confirmed the diagnosis.

Skin tone was a possible indicator of social status in ancient Egypt, said Angel Gonazlez of the School of Legal Medicine in Madrid. “Perhaps it was a symbol of high social status, indicating the individual did not perform hard outdoor work or work at all, just like the deformed feet or the extremely long nails for the ancient high-class Chinese women.”

An official photographic portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi (29 November 1835 – 15 November 1908), aged around 55 years.

An official photographic portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi (29 November 1835 – 15 November 1908), aged around 55 years. ( Public Domain ) Note her long fingernails.

The mummified head is in the collection of the Museo de Antropología Médica, Forense, Paleopatología y Criminalística in Madrid, which is Gonzalez’s institution. It was originally called the “beheaded head of a Guinean negress young woman.”

But subsequent analysis in 2007 by Moissidou and her colleagues showed it was actually Egyptian. They traced the head to the Theban Necropolis cemetery and archaeological area. They said the mummification style puts the woman’s life in the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom, between the reigns of Thutmose II and III. This is the best-known Dynasty to the general public because several prominent pharaohs lived then, including Tutankhamun, Akhenaten, Hatshepsut, and Amenhotep III, says an article about the researchers’ conclusions.

Aerial view Theban Necropolis.

Aerial view Theban Necropolis. ( Steve F-E-Cameron/CC BY 3.0 )

The woman’s head ended up in the Cairo Museum sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. Spanish collector and banker Ignacio Bauer bought the head and later sold it to Museo de Antropología Médica, Forense, Paleopatología y Criminalística in Madrid. Gonzalez believes the quality of the head’s embalming shows she was an important member of society.

The researchers did several analyses and examinations to settle on a diagnosis of exogenous ochronosis. They took samples from the base of the woman’s neck for histological examination. The chemical and medical analysis showed she had chronic skin inflammation. Examination with an electron microscope showed the same types of pathologies as in modern people who have the condition.

"We know the ancient Egyptians regarded the use of cosmetics both for aesthetic purposes as well as magical and religious ones. Cosmetic pigments were indeed used on a daily basis," Moissidou explained.

Royal family members often used cosmetics that contained lead, which causes skin disease and inflammation. Moissidou told Discovery News that the fact that this woman used cosmetics “opens up new interesting questions on the head's identity.” She said more research will be done to determine who the mummy might have been during her life.

In an article on Reshafim.org titled “Personal Hygiene and Cosmetics,” it says ancient Egyptians of both sexes and any social status used cosmetics for personal beautification and therapeutic reasons.

A picture of an Egyptian woman applying kohl to her eyes.

A picture of an Egyptian woman applying kohl to her eyes. ( World of Cosmetology )

According to that article, they used white makeup, black makeup made of carbon and lead sulfide (galena) or manganese oxide (pyrolusite). They also used green makeup made of malachite and other copper-based minerals. A brush was used to apply ground red ochre to the cheeks and lips. Black kohl was applied to the eyes with a stick. People of prominent status had a professional “face painter” who did their makeup.

The ancient Egyptians used henna to die fingernails orange and yellow. They also applied oils and unguents to the skin to give it protection from the air of Egypt, the majority of which is situated just north of the equator and is very hot.

An 18th Dynasty Ancient Egyptian kohl container inscribed for Queen Tiye (1410–1372 BC).

An 18th Dynasty Ancient Egyptian kohl container inscribed for Queen Tiye (1410–1372 BC). ( Public Domain )

Reshafim.org states:

“Even after death one had to take care of one's looks. When presenting oneself before the gods during the Judgment of the Dead one had best observe certain rules of dress and make-up in order to make the right impression:

A man says this speech when he is pure, clean, dressed in fresh clothes, shod in white sandals, painted with eye-paint, anointed with the finest oil of myrrh.

Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead  [24]

Because of their importance in the afterworld cosmetics were among the offerings left in tombs. Seshat-Hetep, called Heti [an official of the Egyptian 5th Dynasty, which reigned from 2498 to 2345 BC], lists among the offerings in his mastaba [tomb] at Giza:

Incense, green make-up, black eye-paint, the best of ointment ...”

Ancient Egyptian women wearing kohl, from a tomb mural in Thebes (1420–1375 BC).

Ancient Egyptian women wearing kohl, from a tomb mural in Thebes (1420–1375 BC). ( Public Domain )

Top Image: The mummified head. Source: Museo de Antropología Médica, Forense, Paleopatología y Criminalística, Profesor Reverte Coma

By Mark Miller

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