4,000-year-old vial contains ancient red lipstick, archaeologists say


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A small stone vial discovered in southeastern Iran contained a red cosmetic that was likely used as a lip coloring nearly 4,000 years ago, according to archaeologists.

The rare find is “probably the earliest” example of lipstick to be scientifically documented and analyzed, the researchers reported in February in the journal Scientific Reports.

More than 80% of the analyzed sample was made up of minerals that produce a deep red color — primarily hematite. The mixture also contained manganite and braunite, which have dark hues, as well as traces of other minerals and waxy substances made from vegetables and other organic substances.

“Both the intensity of the red coloring minerals and the waxy substances are, surprisingly enough, fully compatible with recipes for contemporary lipsticks,” the study authors noted.

It’s not possible to exclude the possibility the cosmetic was used in other ways, say, as a blusher, according to lead study author Massimo Vidale, an archaeologist at the University of Padua’s Department of Cultural Heritage in Italy. But he said the homogenous, deep red color, the compounds used and the shape of the vial “suggested to us it was used on lips.”

It’s one of the first examples of an ancient, red-colored cosmetic to be studied, he said, although it wasn’t clear why cosmetic preparations resembling lipstick were uncommon in the archaeological record.

“We have no idea, for the moment. The deep red color we found is the first one we met, while several lighter-colored foundations and eye shadows had been identified before,” he said via email.

The substance found in the stone vial was made from different minerals — including hematite, shown in red. - F. ZorziThe substance found in the stone vial was made from different minerals — including hematite, shown in red. - F. Zorzi

The substance found in the stone vial was made from different minerals — including hematite, shown in red. – F. Zorzi

The use of hematite — crushed red ocher — had been documented on stone cosmetic palettes from the late Neolithic, as well as in ancient Egyptian cosmetic vessels, according to Joann Fletcher, a professor in the University of York’s department of archaeology. Whether the vial from Iran was the earliest lipstick, “all comes down to what this new discovery was actually used for,” she said.

“It is possible the contents of the vial were used as a lip colour. But they could also have been applied to give colour to the cheeks, or for some other purpose, even if the vial looks like a modern lipstick tube,” said Fletcher, who was not involved in the research, in an email.

It is “very plausible” the artifact was a lipstick, said Laurence Totelin, a professor of ancient history in the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University specializing in Greek and Roman science, technology, and medicine.

“As the authors point out, the recipe is not dissimilar to a modern one. The deep red colour is also what we would expect for lip make up,” said Totelin, who was not involved in the study, via email.

“That said, the ingredients are also regularly found in the preparation of ancient medicines, and the vial has a shape that is not inconsistent with a pharmaceutical use,” Totelin said.

Floods reveal artifacts

Other products previously unearthed in Egypt and the Middle East and studied by archaeologists have included black kohl eyeliners and lighter-colored compounds used as eye shadows or foundations. Unlike other ancient cosmetics, the vial’s concoction had a low lead content. This low level, the researchers suggested, might mean the lipstick’s makers understood the dangers of consuming lead, a naturally occurring toxic metal that can cause numerous health problems.

“There is a long and harsh debate among experts on the toxicity of lead compounds in cosmetics,” Vidale said.

Earlier research on artifacts from the same region that Vidale was involved with “suggests that 5,000 years ago white lead was the base material for facial foundations, meanwhile the content of our deep red preparation, supposedly meant for lips, was almost lead-free. It might have been a conscious choice,” he said.

The preparation contained quartz particles, from ground sand or crystal, perhaps added, the study suggested, as a ”shimmery-glittering agent” — although it was possible they came from the inside of the vial itself, which was finely crafted from a greenish stone called chlorite.

It’s also not clear what the original consistency of the cosmetic would have been — a fluid or more solid, Vidale said.

“The vial’s slender shape and limited thickness suggest that it could have been conveniently held in one hand together with the handle of a copper/bronze mirror, leaving the other hand free to use a brush or another kind of applicator,” the study authors wrote, citing an ancient Egyptian papyrus dated to the 12th century BC that depicts a young woman painting her lips in such a way as an example.

The artifact was among thousands of items unearthed from Bronze Age tombs and graves in the Jiroft region of Iran. The graves — part of an ancient kingdom known as Marhasi — were exposed and dislodged in 2001 when a river flooded, after which their precious contents were looted and sold by locals. Many stone and copper items, including the vial, were subsequently recovered by Iranian security forces.

The vial is kept in the National Archaeological Museum of Jiroft, where the team took samples.

“Like a bolt out of the blue, this civilization was discovered … when a disastrous flood hit its ancient cemeteries, exposing all kinds of archaeological treasures,” Vidale said.

“Now the region is well protected, but serious damages were done,” he added. “What we know today is that this was an advanced Mesopotamian-like civilization, a major player in long-distance trade and military ventures, which used its own writing system and was ruled by large cities and powerful, authoritative rulers. The rest is slowly emerging from new excavations.”

It’s not clear who would have worn the lipstick — or in what context. “As far as we know, cosmetics were regularly deposited near the face of the deceased in the graves of the time,” Vidale said.

However, given the looting and destruction of the graves, researchers have not been able to link the artifact with specific human remains.

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