Beautification Processes in Ancient Egypt

For my research paper, I intend to examine the beautification process of Ancient Egyptians, what it meant, and how it impacted them. This has always interested me – while many aspects of human culture have changed in the thousands of years since the time of Ancient Egypt, the idea of altering our appearances to beautify ourselves has remained the same. I plan on focusing on three different main types of beautification steps: makeup (eye paints and face paints), perfume, and oils. I don’t plan on focusing on a specific time period, but instead I will discuss how the application of these cosmetics differed throughout the years. I will also talk about the materials that they used to make the different substances, and where they came from. For example, oils made during the second millennium BC usually came from sesame, horseradish and almond, while malachite and galena made up some of the eye makeup during the predynastic time period. Pertaining to the eye paints, I will narrow in on the use of kohl, because through my research so far I have found that this was a major aspect of eye makeup for the Ancient Egyptians (for example, how it was made, who used it, etc).

How individuals present themselves is a huge way to better understand the culture in question. Archaeology is the study of human societies in the past, and since beautification was such a large part of their culture, it can help us to learn more about what distinguished the elite from the poor, who presented themselves in “beautiful” ways and who was not able to, and what it meant to them. Just as straight teeth and tan skin means beauty to our culture, dark eyes and strong smelling perfumes meant beauty to them.

Surprisingly to me, finding sources for this paper was harder than expected. However, with the use of the MSU library, I have found enough resources to help me research this topic. Among the sources I have found so far, an article titled “Cosmetics, Perfume and Incense in Ancient Egypt,” will help me quite a bit. I have also found another article from the American Journal of Archaeology, titled “The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Cases of Delos and Pasetum,” and while it focuses on ancient perfume in general, it specifically talks about Egyptian perfume quite often, because, as the article states, “ancient perfume is well attested in texts from the Egyptian Old Kingdom…” I have also found an article from the New York Times titled, “Ancient Egypt’s Toxic Makeup Fought Infection, Researchers Say.” It gives some valuable information on the background of their makeup, and it also discusses the health benefits it may have served (the low dosage of lead fought off the eye infections that bacteria from the Nile might have caused). This is just one example of how beautification was an important part of Egyptians lives. While these sources will be my main sources, I have also found some other ones that will help to further my research.

Sources:
The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Cases of Delos and Paestum Jean-Pierre Brun American Journal of Archaeology , Vol. 104, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), pp. 277-308 Published by: Archaeological Institute of America Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/507452

Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt A. Lucas The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology , Vol. 16, No. 1/2 (May, 1930), pp. 41-53 Published by: Egypt Exploration Society Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3854332

Bhanoo, Sindya. “Ancient Egypt’s Toxic Makeup Fought Infection, Researchers Say.” New York Time. N.p., 18 Jan. 2010. Web. .

2 thoughts on “Beautification Processes in Ancient Egypt

  1. I think this is an interesting topic, and I am surprised as well that there are not many references on this issue since it was such a prominent component of Egyptian culture. Hopefully you will be able to find more sources.

    One suggestion to help expand the topic is to look at the archaeological finds associated with makeup and beautification. For example, we have learned about numerous eye makeup palettes in class this semester (i.e. the Narmer Palette). It may be useful to explore who was buried with these items and why, as well as what these items symbolized for the deceased. Perhaps there are also archaeological finds of oil and perfume containers which would suggest that these items were important for the afterlife and not just when the individual was alive.

    If you can, I also think it will be an interesting contribution to expand your discussion of the health benefits (and perhaps consequences) of cosmetics in ancient Egypt. If I remember correctly from a previous class I took, some of the perfumes and oils were placed on the heads of Egyptians to prevent head lice. Additionally, many of the elites and royalty shaved their natural hair and wore wigs to prevent lice. This could be another avenue of research if you want to include hair in the concept of beauty.

  2. If you are having trouble finding enough material as you continue, you could also expand a bit outside of makeup and perfumes as a form of beautification. Beauty also has a lot to do with how you present yourself. I think you could expand and include aspects of fashion. That is a much broader topic, though, so maybe you could choose to include just certain parts of how they dressed and decorated themselves that were particularly meaningful. Especially, if certain aspects of fashion can be seen across all periods of Egyptian history, it would go nicely with the other things that you are exploring.

    Have you considered art as a source of information as well? This would not be as helpful for perfumes and oils, but how people are depicted in places such as tombs could be a source for how a beautiful person would look to the Egyptians. You could have some evidence from artifacts about how their makeup was done, and if you expanded at all, there would be evidence of how they dressed or otherwise adorned themselves.

    Another thing you could do is look at the significance of certain kinds of make up beyond their use as a method of beautification. Maybe some kinds of make up or oils had special religious or social meaning.

Comments are closed.