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Researchers discover 4000-year-old tube of ancient red lipstick and it's blowing everyone's mind

Found in the Jiroft region of Iran, the vial of lipstick unveiled truths about one of the most powerful civilizations of that time.

Researchers discover 4000-year-old tube of ancient red lipstick and it's blowing everyone's mind
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Dids, Smithsonian Magazine | Massimo Vidale

Cosmetics have long fascinated humans, even during the ancient times when no synthetic pigments were available. The earliest use of cosmetics dates back to the Egyptian civilization when women and even men used kohls, face paints and scented oils for skin, per Ancient Origins. Many other civilizations developed cosmetics from naturally available ingredients. Recently, researchers have uncovered a 4000-year-old lipstick vial claiming it might be the oldest cosmetics product ever found. The study, "A Bronze Age lip-paint from southeastern Iran," published by Scientific Reports delves into the making of the lipstick, and it's quite intriguing.

Representative Image Soure: Pexels | Suzy Hazelwood
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Suzy Hazelwood

In 2001, the archaeological remains of an ancient civilization, Marḫaši, were discovered when there was a massive flood in the Halil river in southeastern Iran. Several graveyards of the 3rd millennium BCE were hit and many rich burials surfaced. Despite thousands of valuable artifacts being looted, some were recovered and safeguarded in the Jiroft Archaeological Museum. One of those artifacts was a tube of lipstick from the Marḫaši civilization. Made of greenish chlorite rock, the aesthetic style of the vial made the researchers conclude that it was from the early Bronze Age civilization.

Image Source: Circa 1500 BC, Ancient Egyptian boxes used for storing make-up. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Image Source: Circa 1500 BC, Ancient Egyptian boxes were used for storing make-up. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The incredible craftsmanship and precise incisions amazed the researchers who think 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." Based on radiocarbon dating, the study identified that the lipstick must've been from the years 1936 to 1687 BCE. The scientists are not surprised by the 4000-year endurance of the lipstick considering, "the long-standing, well-known technical and aesthetic tradition in cosmetology in ancient Iran."

Representative Image Source: Pexels |
Representative Image Source: Pexels |

The remnants of the lipstick left in the vial were in the form of a loose, dark purple fine powder. On using multiple analytical methods, the researchers found that the lipstick had many minerals including hematite that added red color to the lipstick as well as manganite, braunite, galena, anglesite and plant-based waxes. Also, the remnants had a few distorted vegetal fibers which seemed to have added a fragrance to the lipstick. The study says that the coloring agents as well as the waxy substances were similar to the modern lipstick preparation methods. While other Iranian cosmetics were known to have substantial amounts of lead, the red lipstick surprisingly didn't have much. Researchers believe that the cosmetics makers might've known about the "potential dangers of a direct oral lead ingestion."

The advanced cosmetic preparation processes implied the evolution of social structures in ancient Iran. The study found it impossible to match the lipstick with the human remains from the graveyard to find its owner. However, researchers suggest that if the cosmetics were found to be buried with women alone, it might represent the social stress caused by the changing times or the need for individual appeal that women faced back then. Speaking to Smithsonian Magazine, archaeologist and the study's co-author, Massimo Vidale said, "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,'" and added, "It was a costly expression of luxury that played a crucial role in shaping social interaction in the hierarchies of the early cities."

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