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The ancient lipstick vial found in Iran. Left) the carved chlorite vial containing the cosmetic preparation. Right) image of mineral composition of the substance found. Source: Left: M. Vidale, Right: F. Zorzi /Nature CC BY 4.0 DEED

Ancient Red Lipstick Found in 4,000-Year-Old Vial Unearthed in Iran

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Archaeologists studying a unique artifact obtained from an ancient cemetery in Iran have identified it as a small cosmetics vial made from chlorite. Most notably, inside the vial they found the powdery remains of a reddish substance that is believed to have been lipstick, based on its unique mixture of ingredients. This astonishing item has been dated to the Bronze Age (2,000 to 1,600 BC), and it is the oldest example of red lipstick found anywhere in the world.

The carved mineral tube that contained the lipstick was recovered from a 4,000-year-old graveyard in the Jiroft region of southeastern Iran. The cemetery was unearthed by the forces of nature following the flooding of the nearby Halil River in 2001, but its contents were mostly removed by tomb robbers who sold them on the antiquities black market. Fortunately, the robbers did miss a few items, including the small vial that has now been found to have held an ancient cosmetic preparation.

Ancient lipstick vial unearthed in Iran. (M. Vidale / CC BY 4.0 DEED)

Ancient lipstick vial unearthed in Iran. (M. Vidale / CC BY 4.0 DEED)

A Timeless Cosmetic: Ancient Lipstick Unearthed in Iran

In a new article appearing in Scientific Reports, a team of archaeologists from the University of Padua in Italy detail the results of their study of the fine substance that was scraped out of the ancient vial. Naturally it had dried out with the immense passage of time, and now appeared in the form of a loose purplish powder.

Using various high-tech methods of analysis, including X-ray diffraction and mass spectrometry, the researchers identified traces of several different minerals in the cosmetic preparation (hematite, manganite, braunite, galena and anglesite), which were mixed with vegetal waxes and organic ingredients. It was the hematite that would have given this concoction is deep red tinge, while the vegetal waxes would have given it a perfume-like odor.

Amazingly, this complex mixture overlaps quite closely with modern lipstick recipes. These ingredients would have created a moist paste similar in texture to current lipsticks as well. Since there were organic ingredients included, it was possible to obtain a relatively precise estimate of when the lipstick was made using carbon dating techniques. These tests dated the remnants of the paste to between the years 1,936 and 1,687 BC, which links it to ancient Iran’s Marḫaši culture.

According to various Mesopotamian texts, the Marḫaši built a powerful civilization in what is now eastern Iran. The discovery of the lipstick vial at a site they once occupied “is far from surprising,” the study authors wrote, “considering the long-standing, well-known technical and aesthetic tradition in cosmetology in ancient Iran.”

Lipstick was not the only type of cosmetic used by the people of Bronze Age MesopotamiaEyeliner was the most commonly used cosmetic during these times, having been worn by both men and women. This cosmetic was made from a black powder known as sormeh, which would have been used in powders applied to the cheeks as well.

The mineralogical composition of the cosmetic preparation used to prepare the ancient lipstick unearthed in Iran. (F. Zorzi / CC BY 4.0 DEED)

The mineralogical composition of the cosmetic preparation used to prepare the ancient lipstick unearthed in Iran. (F. Zorzi / CC BY 4.0 DEED)

Was the Ancient Iranian Lipstick Made for Commercial Display?

The tiny mineral vial that held the lipstick is also a fascinating find in its own right. It was made from chlorite, a type of silicate mineral that is usually green in color (the vial has a greenish tint) and smooth to the touch. The container bore intricate incisions reminiscent of certain artifacts unearthed in excavations tied to the ancient cultures of the Jiroft region, imbuing it with a striking resemblance to its archaeological counterparts.

Nevertheless, the small container still represents a one-of-a-kind discovery. “The size and shape of the vial were completely different from those of other cosmetic vials from the same period,” archaeologist and study co-author Massimo Vidale told a reporter from Miami Herald.

To explain the style of the unique vial, the Italian archaeologists offered an intriguing theory. They claimed that the appearance of the product “supports the idea that cosmetic products in ancient times were branded, packaged and traded in standard types of containers with specific forms, allowing for easy visual identification.”

In other words, the lipstick container may have been produced specifically for purchase at some type of open market, as is the case with modern cosmetics.

The chlorite-schist lipstick vial and its content. (a) the carved chlorite vial containing the cosmetic preparation. (b) a general ESEM view of the composition of the substance (Left: M. Vidale / Right: F. Zorzi / CC BY 4.0 DEED)

The chlorite-schist lipstick vial and its content. ( a) the carved chlorite vial containing the cosmetic preparation. ( b) a general ESEM view of the composition of the substance (Left: M. Vidale / Right: F. Zorzi / CC BY 4.0 DEED)

Ancient Cosmetics in a Cultural and Social Context

While the contents of the ancient vial were positively identified, researchers were unable to link it to a specific owner, as it was not found next to a particular body in the cemetery. In general, little is known about the people who were buried in ancient Iranian graveyards. Consequently, the researchers are not assuming the wearer of the ancient lipstick found in Iran would have been a woman.

Adopting a broader perspective, study co-author Massimo Vidale lamented the fact that ancient cosmetics have not been more seriously studied.

“The scarce attention paid to this ancient Bronze Age industry, I believe, is due to the fact that it has been considered a secondary ‘women’s matter,’” Vidale told Smithsonian Magazine, an assumption he contradicts by noting that men in ancient times almost assuredly wore makeup as well. “In contrast, it was a costly expression of luxury that played a crucial role in shaping social interaction in the hierarchies of the early cities.”

Top image: The ancient lipstick vial found in Iran. Left) the carved chlorite vial containing the cosmetic preparation. Right) image of mineral composition of the substance found. Source: Left: M. Vidale, Right: F. Zorzi /Nature CC BY 4.0 DEED

By Nathan Falde

 
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Nathan

Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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