Last week, while working on an article about the chemical make-up of 2000-year-old medicine tablets from a Roman shipwreck, I read that back in 2003 archeologists had unearthed a full canister of cosmetic skin cream, hidden in a Roman temple drain in Southwark, London.
When a Museum of London curator opened up the 2nd century A.D. canister, she found it full of white ointment, awesomely reminiscent of modern-day Nivea cream.
This rare find was then chemically analyzed by University of Bristol’s Richard Evershed, who has a quirky research niche: Figuring out the composition of ancient medical, food and cosmetic concoctions, usually by studying residues leftover on old pottery. (He made news last December by reporting that the fatty deposits on pieces of ancient Polish pottery are Northern Europe’s oldest evidence of cheese-making.)
So what precisely was in the creamy white ointment?
In a 2004 Nature paper, Evershed’s team announced that “the Londinium cream” was primarily made up of animal fat, probably from cattle or sheep. They also detected starch, which was likely isolated by boiling roots and grains in water. In addition, the cream contained a tin dioxide mineral called cassiterite with the chemical formula SnO2.
Then came some reverse engineering. Evershed’s team mixed together a new cream based on the proportions of animal fat, starch and tin dioxide that they had measured in the ancient ointment. Here’s how they describe its aesthetic appeal:
“This cream had a pleasant texture when rubbed into the skin. Although it felt greasy initially, owing to the fat melting as a result of body heat, this was quickly overtaken by the smooth, powdery texture created by the starch. Remarkably, starch is still used for this purpose in modern cosmetics. The addition of SnO2 to the starch/fat base confers a white opacity, which is consistent with the cream being a cosmetic. Fashionable Roman women aspired to a fair complexion, and the Londinium cream may have served as a foundation layer.”
The researchers go on to say that employing tin to color the ointment white would have been safer than using toxic lead-based pigments, which was common in that era. “White Roman face paint typically comprised lead acetate, prepared by dissolving lead shavings in vinegar.”
They write that it’s not clear whether the cream’s maker intentionally opted for tin because it is non-toxic compared to lead. During the 2nd century A.D., Roman society was slowly becoming aware of lead poisoning… But then again, the chemists of that era weren’t very adept at distinguishing lead from tin, note the authors.
Another possibility is that the cosmetic-maker used tin out of convenience, because nearby Cornish mines had abundant deposits of tin dioxide. Or perhaps our cosmetic-maker was an early pioneer of the buy-local scene.