The Cosmetic Trades

All these imperial-sized chunks of land carved out by local dynasties were centres of cosmetic excellence, with fragile trading links. A strong dynasty was a definite commercial asset. Dotted about the landscape in strategic positions, massive palaces and temples towered over the rest of the population, and drove the luxury economy. Beauty was a powerful display of rank order; and it was just as true in c.3000 bce as it was to the Roman author Herodotus later 'that the countries which lie on the circumference of the inhabited world produce the things which we believe to be most rare and beautiful'.5 If a thing was rare and beautiful, the kings, queens, and chieftains wanted it (which created a trade); and then so did everybody else (which created an industry). Palaces and temples not only created demand, but also refashioned raw materials in their own farms or workshops, turning themselves into middlemen and 'adding value' to local resources or cheap imports. At Pylos (c.1550-1200 bce) in Mycenaean Greece, the palace administrators ran an extensive perfume industry by importing crude oil, recruiting local labour to add imported spices and local herbs, then selling the product either in locally made bulk jars or in small expensive phials, in exchange for all the gold, silver, Egyptian faience, copper, ivory, and wool that the local community and the palace required.6 For the local palace, its suburban 'service city', and the local hinterland farmers and gatherers, cosmetics and beauty goods were, literally, a golden trading opportunity: small, portable, and profitable—if you had the technical know-how.

Thanks in part to this sustained demand for beautiful and rare things, almost every useful rock, tree, shrub, plant, fruit, root, flower (or animal part) in Eurasia was gradually discovered and exploited during the Bronze Age between c.3000 and c.1500 bce. Beautiful and desirable 'goods' (i.e. good things) were created from local wood, stone, metal, and animal products, or from the heaps of leaves, seeds, and flora that the gatherers brought in; while already domesticated plants like olives, grapes, corn, flax, and wool were grown, harvested, and manufactured in bulk on an ever-increasing scale. Natural materials exploited for a specific cosmetic purpose around this time included the soft volcanic rock called pumice stone, used for filing or scraping the skin; and the natural sponges found in warm seas, used for sluicing the body. The ornamental cut-flower trade was one of many specialized luxury trades that underwent a long transition. From at least c.3000 bce the Egyptians gathered two types of native lotus flower, the white and the blue; by 200 the Indian pink lotus had been introduced, and bulk quantities of roses, narcissus, and lilies were artificially cultivated and shipped off to flower and garland traders in Rome (who were also importing artificial silk garlands from India). It was said that 2,000 lilies were needed for 3 pounds of flower oil: 'The more times you repeat with fresh lilies, the stronger the ointment will be.'7

Over the course of several millennia Egypt emerged as the main hub of the western Eurasian cosmetic trades. The Egyptian upper classes alone consumed the products of thousands of villages, thousands of miles away. To meet demand and serve their perfumed unguent industry, the Egyptians invaded and developed the 'Land of Magun' (ancient Oman) as a spice region. In c.3000 bce the coastal village of Ras al-Junayz in Oman was apparently connected not only with Old Kingdom Egypt, but with Mesopotamia and the Indus valley:

the inhabitants of the village traded their own products—large mollusc shells, as well as shell rings—with crews of incoming vessels... a manganese oxide of local origin, pyrolusite, was ground to make a black powder used as an unguent (kohl) and kept in shells of small molluscs of the genus 'Anodara'—and Anodara shells containing a black powder have also been found in the Royal Tombs of Ur... [and there were] other exports, for example the operculi of molluscs, which when ground up, were an essential ingredient in perfumes for incense.8

That all these trading and manufacturing skills should have been contained in one small village in 3000 bce is a sobering thought.

Cosmetic equipment was now routinely included in the trip to the land of the dead, and grave goods are a main source of evidence outside the imperial courts—even beyond the subtropical zones. That the north-west Eurasian Celts were always well barbered and groomed is underlined by the grave of one Celtic chief, buried honourably with a small bag laid on his chest containing his most essential personal belongings: three iron fish-hooks, five amber beads, a wooden comb, and an iron razor. The Russian Pazyricks were buried with their bronze mirrors. In China the preference was for ivory hairpins. Well before 3000 bce Egyptian pre-dynastic graves contained long-toothed combs, hairpins, and an especially revered tool among the Egyptians, the eye palette, a thin stone oval or rectangular slate used for grinding up eye paint that became increasingly elaborately decorated and ceremonial in character, and is consistently found in tombs up to the Nineteenth Dynasty and beyond. The most expensive consumer item of all was probably the cosmetic travelling-case;an unusually well-preserved Egyptian Eighteenth Dynasty case gives us just a glimpse of this new batterie de toilette. A well-packed traveller's kit, this resinous cedar box has four compartments containing one terracotta and two alabaster vases for oils and unguents; a piece of pumice stone;two (joined) 'stibium' tubes for eye and face paint, a wood and an ivory stick; an ivory comb; a bronze shell for mixing ingredients; a pair of pink gazelle-skin sandals; and three red cushions.9

For valuable cosmetic products especially, the container was now part of the product. Container designs multiplied, and were lavishly decorated with the new range of pigments: Egyptian blue-glass, for example, and Egyptian blue-glass ceramics (faience) were made into small and elegant jars, jugs, and bottles of all sizes, all with handles, stands, lids, and spouts. They were high-class bijoux gifts which were widely traded (and copied) for centuries. Kohl eye paste was normally packed into reeds;but the luxurious kohl tubes of the princess Meritaten, found in her bedroom suite at the royal palace of El Amarna, were made of red, white, and apple-green painted pottery with her name inlaid in white and blue; other kohl tubes found there were 'made of glass in the shape of a small hand-sized column with a spreading palm-leaf capital, with the column then decorated by bands of different coloured glass, dragged into loops around the stem'. Cosmetic tools and containers now often came in sets; complete sets of tubs and basins were a traditional marriage gift in China.10 For water and other liquids there were bronze or wooden shells, saucers, finger-bowls, hand-basins, foot-basins, small buckets, large buckets, and bathtubs; for drying the skin, bath towels, hand towels, and face cloths; for scraping the body, gold, bronze, and ivory combs, toothpicks, brushes, knives, files, and scissors. Some of these ancient toilette items have survived better than others: wooden, leather, or cloth items were all highly perishable, and the crystal, marble, gold, silver, and bronze baths of which the poets speak were either highly breakable or highly recyclable, or mythical. Only some sturdier stone or pottery baths have survived.11

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