Amazing Ancient Inventions – Part 2

8.3 Makeup

Cosmetics (colloquially known as makeup or make-up) are care substances used to enhance the appearance or odor of the human body. They are generally mixtures of chemical compounds, some being derived from natural sources, many being synthetic. 


Archaeological evidence of cosmetics dates at least from ancient Egypt and Greece. According to one source, early major developments include:

  •     Castor oil by ancient Egypt as a protective balm
  •     Skin creams made of beeswax, olive oil, and rosewater described by Romans
  •     Vaseline and lanolin in the nineteenth century
  •     Nivea Creme in 1911.


Cosmetics are mentioned in the Old Testament—2 Kings 9:30 where Jezebel painted her eyelids—approximately 840 BC—and the book of Esther describes various beauty treatments as well.
The Ancient Greeks also used cosmetics.  Cosmetic use was frowned upon at many points in Western history. For example, in the 19th century, Queen Victoria publicly declared makeup improper, vulgar, and acceptable only for use by actors.

Ancient Egypt

The ancient civilization of the Nile River Valley known as Egypt is one of the most notable records of early cosmetic use. Countless papyrus scrolls exist with some of of their cosmetic recipes, and archaeologists have even found some containers with the residue of these makeup mixes. The natural tinted clay pigment known as red ochre was the favorite way for Egyptians to rogue their cheeks and lips. The most famous makeup of Egyptians is probably their eyeliner though. Even modern makeup artists still enjoy using at least simple black eyeliner to accentuate the eyes of the wearer and sometimes pull a line of the black pigment outward from the corner of the eye to closely resemble paintings and decorated, painted busts that have been collected as artifacts from this ancient civilization. The original black pigment the Egyptians used was called kohl. However, it was made from a combination of different materials rather than a single item from nature. By grinding together burnt almonds, ochre, oxidized copper, malachite, lead, and crushed antimony one creates a dark black powder that would then be applied with a small stick to give the effect of more almond shaped eyes when put along the edges of the upper and lower eyelids. This special combination was also thought to reduce eye infection and to help restore failing eyesight in addition to reducing the glare of the powerful Egyptian sun. Modern scientists have investigated these ancient claims to find out that the combination of minerals can prove to be helpful in small amounts as an eye antiseptic and easily help with glare as even football players know to apply black paint beneath their eyes to help reduce the whiteout effect of a brightly shining sun.

Nefertiti bust with eye liner applied


Before the ancient Greeks invaded Egypt to establish the ruling Ptolemys and adopted several of the ancient Egyptian cosmetic combinations they did have their own techniques for the beautification of the human form. Since the Greek goddess Aphrodite was considered to be the human personification of beauty and drawings and raised relief carvings of her were everywhere, the Greeks were pretty set in their standard of beauty.

Normal women who were not Aphrodite used cosmetics to increase their public appeal. A mixture of honey and olive oil was frequently applied to skin to give it a lighter color, act as a moisturizer, and give the skin a shimmering quality. Rather than using the Egyptian formula for kohl, Greeks would merely grind used charcoal and mix the powder with olive oil to create eyeshadow instead of using eyeliner. Crushing iron oxide (rust) into a powder could be used as a rogue colored blush. Also, the ground iron oxide was frequently mixed with olive oil (the basic staple for Greek cosmetics and everyday life) and beeswax to make a paste for a type of lipstick or lip gloss to redden lips. However, cosmetic use was light in Greek women as they preferred as natural a look as possible to create the ideal beauty.

Depictions of Aphrodite never showed a woman slathered in makeup with artificial beauty enhancers; therefore, Greek women truly attempted to keep makeup as light as possible to live up to these expectations of beauty. They really preferred to use the skin mixtures to increase what nature had given them rather than cover things up with foundation or concealer like in modern times or even during the major reign of the Roman Empire when makeup was considered to be the height of beauty and expressions of wealth and status.


History of cosmetics across the globe


The use of cosmetics in Ancient Egypt is well documented. kohl and henna have their roots in north Africa. Remedies to treat wrinkles were recorded at the time of Thutmosis III, containing such ingredients as gum of frankincense and fresh moringa. For scars and burns, a special ointment was made of red ochre, kohl, and sycamore juice. An alternative treatment was a poultice of carob grounds and honey, or an ointment made of frankincense and honey. To improve breath the ancient Africans chewed herbs, frankincense, or licorice root stick, which is still in use today. Jars of what could be compared with ‘setting lotion’ have been found to contain a mixture of beeswax and resin. These doubled as remedies for problems such as baldness and greying hair.

Middle East

Cosmetics were used in Persia and what is today the Middle East from ancient periods. After Arab tribes converted to Islam and conquered those areas, in some areas cosmetics were only restricted if they were to disguise the real look in order to mislead or cause uncontrolled desire. In Islamic law, there is no prohibition on wearing cosmetics, but there are requirements as stated above, and that the cosmetics must not be made of harmful substances as to harm one’s body.

An early teacher was Abu al-Qssum al-Zahrawi, or Abulcasis, who wrote the 24-volume medical encyclopedia Al-Tasrif.. A chapter of the 19th volume was dedicated to cosmetics. As the treatise was translated into Latin, the cosmetic chapter was used in the West. Al-Zahrawi considered cosmetics a branch of medicine, which he called “Medicine of Beauty” (Adwiyat al-Zinah). He deals with perfumes, scented aromatics and incense. There were perfumed stocks rolled and pressed in special moulds, perhaps the earliest antecedents of present-day lipsticks and solid deodorants. He also used oily substances called Adhan for medication and beautification.


Chinese people began to stain their fingernails with gum arabic, gelatin, beeswax and egg from around 3000 BCE. The colors used represented social class: Chou dynasty royals wore gold and silver; later royals wore black or red. The lower classes were forbidden to wear bright colors on their nails.


Flowers play an important decorative role in China. Legend has it that once on the 7th day of the 1st lunar month, while Princess Shouyang, daughter of Emperor Wu of Liu Song, was resting under the eaves of Hanzhang Palace near the plum trees after wandering in the gardens, a plum blossom drifted down onto her fair face, leaving a floral imprint on her forehead that enhanced her beauty further. The court ladies were said to be so impressed, that they started decorating their own foreheads with a small delicate plum blossom design. This is also the mythical origin of the floral fashion, meihua zhuang (literally “plum blossom makeup”), that originated in the Southern Dynasties (420–589) and became popular amongst ladies in the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) dynasties.


In Japan, geisha wore lipstick made of crushed safflower petals to paint the eyebrows and edges of the eyes as well as the lips, and sticks of bintsuke wax, a softer version of the sumo wrestlers’ hair wax, were used by geisha as a makeup base. Rice powder colors the face and back; rouge contours the eye socket and defines the nose. Ohaguro (black paint) colours the teeth for the ceremony, called Erikae, when maiko (apprentice geisha) graduate and become independent. The geisha would also sometimes use bird droppings to compile a lighter color.


The maiko (apprentice geisha) Naokazu serving tea at an outdoor tea ceremony, part of the Plum Blossom Festival, Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. Image Source >>


In the Middle Ages it was thought sinful and immoral to wear makeup by Church leaders, but many women still adopted the fad. From the Renaissance up until the 20th century the lower classes had to work outside, in agricultural jobs and the typically light-colored European’s skin was darkened by exposure to the sun. The higher a person was in status, the more leisure time he or she had to spend indoors, which kept their skin pale. Thus, the highest class of European society were pale resulting in European men and mostly women attempting to lighten their skin directly, or using white powder on their skin to look more aristocratic. A variety of products were used, including white lead paint which also may have contained arsenic, which also poisoned women and killed many. Queen Elizabeth I of England was one well-known user of white lead, with which she created a look known as “the Mask of Youth”. Portraits of the queen by Nicholas Hilliard from later in her reign are illustrative of her influential style.


Pale faces were a trend during the European Middle Ages. 16th century women would bleed themselves to achieve pale skin. Spanish prostitutes wore pink makeup to contract pale skin. 13th century Italian women wore red lipstick to show that they were upperclass.


In India, cosmetics have been in used since around the IV or V Century. Men and women used coal as form of eye shadow. Vermilion, which is an opaque orangish red pigment derived from powdering Cinnabar (mercury sulfide), was used to color the cheeks. However, it is Henna, more specifically Mehndi, the art of painting with henna on the hands and feet, which is perhaps the most well-known cosmetic application from this exotic land.

Henna (Lawsonia inermis, also called mignonette tree[1]) is a flowering plant used since antiquity to dye skin, hair, fingernails, leather and wool. The name is also used for dye preparations derived from the plant, and for the art of temporary tattooing based on those dyes.  (Source: Wikipedia) Henna is traditionally used to mark important life events such as marriage.


The Americas and Australia

Some Native American tribes painted their faces for ceremonial events or battle. Similar practices were followed by Aborigines in Australia.



8.4 Silk

Silk is a natural protein fibre, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The protein fibre of silk is composed mainly of fibroin and produced by certain insect larvae to form cocoons. The best-known type of silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori reared in captivity (sericulture). The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fibre, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors.

Silks are produced by several other insects, but generally only the silk of moth caterpillars has been used for textile manufacturing. There has been some research into other silks, which differ at the molecular level. Many silks are mainly produced by the larvae of insects undergoing complete metamorphosis, but some adult insects such as webspinners produce silk, and some insects such as raspy crickets produce silk throughout their lives. Silk production also occurs in Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, and ants), silverfish, mayflies, thrips, leafhoppers, beetles, lacewings, fleas, flies and midges. Other types of arthropod produce silk, most notably various arachnids such as spiders (see spider silk).


A variety of wild silks, produced by caterpillars other than the mulberry silkworm, have been known and used in China, South Asia, and Europe since ancient times. However, the scale of production was always far smaller than that of cultivated silks. There are several reasons for this:

  • firstly, they differ from the domesticated varieties in color and texture and are therefore less uniform;
  • secondly, cocoons gathered in the wild have usually had the pupa emerge from them before being discovered so the silk thread that makes up the cocoon has been torn into shorter lengths;
  • and thirdly, many wild cocoons are covered in a mineral layer that stymies attempts to reel from them long strands of silk.

Thus previously the only way to obtain silk suitable for spinning into textiles in areas where commercial silks are not cultivated is by tedious and labor intensive carding.

Commercial silks originate from reared silkworm pupae which are bred to produce a white colored silk thread with no mineral on the surface. The pupae are killed by either dipping them in boiling water before the adult moths emerge or by piercing them with a needle. These factors all contribute to the ability of the whole cocoon to be unravelled as one continuous thread, permitting a much stronger cloth to be woven from the silk.

Wild silks also tend to be more difficult to dye than silk from the cultivated silkworm. A technique known as demineralizing allows the mineral layer around the cocoon to be removed, leaving only variability in color as a barrier from creating a commercial silk industry based on wild silks in parts of the world where wild silkmoths thrive, such as Africa and South America.

Silk fabric was first developed in ancient China, with some of the earliest examples found as early as 3,500 BC. Legend gives credit for developing silk to a Chinese empress, Leizu (Hsi-Ling-Shih, Lei-Tzu). Silks were originally reserved for the Kings of China for their own use and gifts to others, but spread gradually through Chinese culture and trade both geographically and socially, and then to many regions of Asia. Silk rapidly became a popular luxury fabric in the many areas accessible to Chinese merchants because of its texture and luster. Silk was in great demand, and became a staple of pre-industrial international trade. In July 2007, archeologists discovered intricately woven and dyed silk textiles in a tomb in Jiangxi province, dated to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty roughly 2,500 years ago. Although historians have suspected a long history of a formative textile industry in ancient China, this find of silk textiles employing “complicated techniques” of weaving and dyeing provides direct and concrete evidence for silks dating before the Mawangdui-discovery and other silks dating to the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD).

The first evidence of the silk trade is the finding of silk in the hair of an Egyptian mummy of the 21st dynasty, c. 1,070 BC.

The silk trade reached as far as the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. This trade was so extensive that the major set of trade routes between Europe and Asia came to be known as the Silk Road.

Silk Road. Image Source >>

The Emperors of China strove to keep knowledge of sericulture secret to maintain the Chinese monopoly. Nonetheless sericulture reached Korea around 200 BC, about the first half of the 1st century AD had reached ancient Khotan, and by AD 140 the practice had been established in India.

In the ancient era, silk from China was the most lucrative and sought-after luxury item traded across the Eurasian continent, and many civilizations, such as the ancient Persians, benefited economically from trade.

Silk Facts

  • Today, the major silk producers are China (54%) and India (14%).
  • To produce 1 kg of silk, 104 kg of mulberry leaves must be eaten by 3,000 silkworms. It takes about 5,000 silkworms to make a pure silk kimono.
  • Silk has a smooth, soft texture that is not slippery, unlike many synthetic fibers.
  • Silk is one of the strongest natural fibers but loses up to 20% of its strength when wet.

The entire production process of silk can be divided into several steps which are typically handled by different entities. Extracting raw silk starts by cultivating the silkworms on Mulberry leaves. Once the worms start pupating in their cocoons, these are dissolved in boiling water in order for individual long fibres to be extracted and fed into the spinning reel.

Silk moths lay eggs on specially prepared paper. The eggs hatch and the caterpillars (silkworms) are fed fresh mulberry leaves. After about 35 days and 4 moltings, the caterpillars are 10,000 times heavier than when hatched and are ready to begin spinning a cocoon. A straw frame is placed over the tray of caterpillars, and each caterpillar begins spinning a cocoon by moving its head in a pattern. Two glands produce liquid silk and force it through openings in the head called spinnerets. Liquid silk is coated in sericin, a water-soluble protective gum, and solidifies on contact with the air. Within 2–3 days, the caterpillar spins about 1 mile of filament and is completely encased in a cocoon. The silk farmers then kill most caterpillars by heat, leaving some to metamorphose into moths to breed the next generation of caterpillars. Harvested cocoons are then soaked in boiling water to soften the sericin holding the silk fibers together in a cocoon shape. The fibers are then unwound to produce a continuous thread. Since a single thread is too fine and fragile for commercial use, anywhere from three to ten strands are spun together to form a single thread of silk.

Read More:

8.5 Perfume

The word perfume used today derives from the Latin per fumum, meaning “through smoke.” Perfumery, or the art of making perfumes, began in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt and was further refined by the Romans and Persians.
Perfume or parfum is a mixture of fragrant essential oils or aroma compounds, fixatives and solvents used to give the human body, animals, objects, and living spaces “a pleasant scent.” The odoriferous compounds that make up a perfume can be manufactured synthetically or extracted from plant or animal sources.
There has always been a trade in scents
and by the year 2008 perfume had become a $10 billion industry. Today women have fragrance wardrobes of at least six different perfumes, rather than a single signature perfume, keeping one special perfume for occasion moments.

Perfumes have been known to exist in some of the earliest human civilizations, either through ancient texts or from archaeological digs. Modern perfumery began in the late 19th century with the commercial synthesis of aroma compounds such as vanillin or coumarin, which allowed for the composition of perfumes with smells previously unattainable solely from natural aromatics alone.

Ancient writings found in Persia, Iraq (Mesopotamia), Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Rome, as well as the Far East and India, mention perfume industries that once thrived in these areas.

Findings in archeological sites have been, throughout the years, a rich source of knowledge of history, culture and life styles of ancient communities. Excavations in these areas often unearth unique perfume containers, some of which are found in almost perfect condition. Various materials were used in antiquity to manufacture containers for the expensive perfume extracts that were in great demand. Clay, stone, metal and glass were the main substances, each with their advantages and disadvantages. Some containers, like those of clay, were easy to make and blocked sunlight. This was an advantage since light tends to shorten the life expectancy of the perfume.  Throughout the Middle East you can find an interesting assortment of clay pot containers, some of which were designed to look like people or animals (sometimes only a few inches in length).

People have used perfume, oils and unguents on their bodies for thousands of years in lesser or greater amounts dependant on fashion whims.  The early Egyptians used perfumed balms as part of religious ceremonies and later as part of pre love making preparations.  Myrrh and Frankincense were exuded gums from trees used to scent the atmosphere in rituals.  Other plants such as rose and peppermint were steeped in oils until a perfumed unguent formed. The unguent was then rubbed into the skin.  It’s interesting to note that perfume has come full circle today as more and more of us seek out high quality aromatherapy perfumed oils to use in exactly the same way as our ancestors did.

Egyptian 18th Dynasty (1334-1325 B.C.E.), perfume box in the shape of a double cartouche, made of gold, silver, glass and translucent calcite – Treasures of Tutankhamun, Cairo Museum.  Image Source >>

Products that enhance the feel of skin and the smell of the body have been highly valued in every culture.  Trade routes introduced spices to other parts of the world and a wider range of scents could be made.  In the past people often mixed their own potions using home methods creating their own aromatherapy products.  Many homes had a still room where essences were steeped out of flowers and herbs.

The world’s first recorded chemist is considered to be a woman named Tapputi, a perfume maker who was mentioned in a cuneiform tablet from the 2nd millennium BC in Mesopotamia.[2] She distilled flowers, oil, and calamus with other aromatics then filtered and put them back in the still several times.

In 2005, archaeologists uncovered what are believed to be the world’s oldest perfumes in Pyrgos, Cyprus. The perfumes date back more than 4,000 years. The perfumes were discovered in an ancient perfumery. At least 60 stills, mixing bowls, funnels and perfume bottles were found in the 43,000-square-foot (4,000 m2) factory. In ancient times people used herbs and spices, like almond, coriander, myrtle, conifer resin, bergamot, as well as flowers.

The Arabian chemist, Al-Kindi (Alkindus), wrote in the 9th century a book on perfumes which he named Book of the Chemistry of Perfume and Distillations. It contained more than a hundred recipes for fragrant oils, salves, aromatic waters and substitutes or imitations of costly drugs. The book also described 107 methods and recipes for perfume-making and perfume making equipment, such as the alembic (which still bears its Arabic name).

The Persian chemist Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna) introduced the process of extracting oils from flowers by means of distillation, the procedure most commonly used today. He first experimented with the rose. Until his discovery, liquid perfumes were mixtures of oil and crushed herbs or petals, which made a strong blend. Rose water was more delicate, and immediately became popular. Both of the raw ingredients and distillation technology significantly influenced western perfumery and scientific developments, particularly chemistry.

The art of perfumery was known in western Europe ever since 1221, if we consider the monks’ recipes of Santa Maria delle Vigne or Santa Maria Novella of Florence, Italy. In the east, the Hungarians produced in 1370 a perfume made of scented oils blended in an alcohol solution at the command of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, best known as Hungary Water. The art of perfumery prospered in Renaissance Italy, and in the 16th century, Italian refinements were taken to France by Catherine de’ Medici’s personal perfumer, Rene the Florentine (Renato il fiorentino). His laboratory was connected with her apartments by a secret passageway, so that no formulas could be stolen en route. Thanks to Rene, France quickly became one of the European centers of perfume and cosmetic manufacture. Cultivation of flowers for their perfume essence, which had begun in the 14th century, grew into a major industry in the south of France. Between the 16th and 17th century, perfumes were used primarily by the wealthy to mask body odors resulting from infrequent bathing. Partly due to this patronage, the perfumery industry was created. In Germany, Italian barber Giovanni Paolo Feminis created a perfume water called Aqua Admirabilis, today best known as eau de cologne, while his nephew Johann Maria Farina (Giovanni Maria Farina) in 1732 took over the business. By the 18th century, aromatic plants were being grown in the Grasse region of France, in Sicily, and in Calabria, Italy to provide the growing perfume industry with raw materials. Even today, Italy and France remain the center of the European perfume design and trade.


 Return to Part 1 >>

Note: Part 2 is divided into 7 pages.
To continue reading, please click on the next page:


  1. James says

    I have always enjoyed articles on this site, but I will not be back. Now that you bow to the censorship of google, (yes, I am aware that I typed a lower case g) you are less than the dirt on the sole of my shoe. Congratulations.

  2. Francesca Thomas says

    A very interesting collection of articles. I have been very interested in writing about this subject as well. Despite the heavy dependence on Wikipedia, I can use this article as a guide, when writing my own thoughts about the ancient past.

    I was also disappointed that section 9 could not be uploaded due to Google’s stupid rules about sex.
    That section was supposed to be about aphrodisiacs, contraceptives and the kamasutra, as mentioned in part 1. Again, at least I know what NOT to write about, but I am not happy that Google is censoring such subjects.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *