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Makeup in the Bronze Age: Red Lipstick Unearthed from 4,000 Years Ago

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Take your mind back to the early days of civilisation. The Ancient Egyptians were seen to be the pioneers with makeup, using black eyeliner for their signature look. However, new findings in Iran suggest that the Egyptians weren’t the only ones dabbling in some makeup pallets.


A new study in the journal of Scientific Reports have uncovered a vial of powder, coloured red oduring an excavation in Iran this year. Surprisingly, this vial dates back to the Bronze age, meaning that the makeup would have been used up to 4,000 years ago. Scientists say that the ingredients within the deep coloured lipstick are similar to those used in modern makeup.


The excavation first began by looking to uncover flooded graveyards in Iran, before researchers came across the green vial made up of chlorite. It now lives in a museum in Iran, but its properties have recently piqued the interest of archaeologists internationally. Specifically, the team suspect that the vial may have come from Marhaši, a powerful civilisation in eastern Iran.


Scientists from the university of Tehran and the university of Padova have identified the composition of the lipstick, made up of hematite, braunite, galena, plant-based waxes, and manganite. Due to this make-up of materials, they have predicted that the lipstick was made between the years of 1,936 BCE to 1,687 BCE. 



Why does this matter?

This discovery may have some pretty profound effects on the ways that we understand ancient cultures. As the substance differs genetically in comparison to the red paint used at the time, scientists and researchers alike believe that its use in the Bronze age suggest that the makers of the lipstick were aware of the fundamental differences between paint and makeup used for the face. 


The vial also has therefore also piqued the interest of social scientists, speculating about the gendered use of makeup in ancient civilisations. Archaeologist Massimo Vidale at the University of Padua concurs that early traces of makeup have been marked down as a woman’s matter. However, he contests to suggest that there is a high chance that men also wore similar makeup compositions in the Bronze age.


As he stated in an interview with Smithsonian, “In contrast, it was a costly expression of luxury that played a crucial role in shaping social integration in the hierarchies of the early cities.” So, perhaps this lipstick isn’t just about how archaeology can bring the past into the present. Instead, it may suggest something much larger about the ways that modern societies use and understand certain cultural traditions. In this case, this new discovery has potential to change the ways that we understand makeup as a gendered practice.


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