A 4,000-Year-Old Lipstick

Archaeologists claim to have discovered world’s oldest lipstick


ancient lipstick

The stone veil that held the world’s oldest Lipstick. Courtesy Eskandari et al.

A small stone vessel from the southeastern Jirof region of Iran may be the oldest lipstick ever discovered. Publishing in the journal Scientific Reports, archaeologists carried out a wide range of tests on the stone vial and the powdery substance found inside, which dates to the early second millennium BCE. While makeup was widespread across the ancient Near East and Asia, the archaeologists believe this may be the earliest evidence of lip coloring.

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Painting the Town Red

The unassuming vial, carved out of a greenish chlorite stone, was recovered along with other looted artifacts in southeast Iran after a large-scale flood uncovered an ancient burial ground. While the overall style of the vessel is similar to hundreds of other objects recovered from the burial ground, its exact size and shape, which lack any direct parallels, caught the eyes of a joint Italian-Iranian archaeological team. Subjugating the vial’s powdery substance to laboratory tests revealed a surprising result: The majority of the powder was made up of hematite, which produces a deep red color.

Although it is possible that the powder (which may have originally been a liquid or paste) was used for a different cosmetic purpose, the archaeologists are confident that it was an early form of lipstick. Compared to other ancient cosmetics, the dark red of the lipstick is rather unique. Other cosmetics consisted of either lighter-hued foundations or the black of the kohl eyeliner that is still heavily used around the Middle East today.

Perhaps most surprising is not the lipstick’s color, but its chemical composition, which is remarkably similar to modern lipsticks. While other cosmetics from the time included large quantities of lead-based materials, the lipstick contained only a negligible amount of lead. The team suggests this is likely evidence that the ancient craftspeople who made the lipstick understood lead’s poisonous properties and, therefore, excluded it from the lipstick, which, of course, would have been placed on the lips and sometimes ingested.

Other elements in the lipstick included plant fibers and particles of quartz crystal, which may have been intended to provide extra shimmer and glitter. Fortunately, the powdery substance included enough carbon-based materials, such as plant fibers, that the archaeologists were able to carry out radiocarbon testing. Analysis revealed that the lipstick dates between 1936 and 1687 BCE. According to the archaeologists, the lipstick was likely part of a funerary deposit, as cosmetics were frequently buried with the deceased, which would also be consistent with the burial ground location where the vial was likely found.

The lipstick vial and the other associated artifacts (now housed in the Jirof Archaeological Museum) are thought to come from the kingdom that ruled over the region at the time. Although archaeological studies of the civilization are in their infancy, it was likely the kingdom of Marhashi, which is mentioned in contemporary cuneiform sources from Mesopotamia.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Egyptian “Scent of Eternity”

Mapping Ancient Sites in Iran

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Albright the Beautician Reveals Secrets of Queen Esther’s Cosmetic Aids

What the Babylonian Flood Stories Can and Cannot Teach Us About the Genesis Flood

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