In the early 20th century, archaeologists working at Wroxeter in England unearthed three small, copper-alloy trinkets dating back to the Roman era. The objects had loops that would have allowed them to be strung from a cord, so the excavators initially assumed they were decorative pendants. But as the BBC reports, this assessment appears to have been wrong; experts with English Heritage now believe that the Wroxeter “pendants” were in fact women’s makeup tools.
Cameron Moffett, a curator with English Heritage, discovered the error while taking a fresh look at the pieces, which had not been examined for many years. She was able to identify the artifacts as cosmetic grinders—small mortar and pestle sets used to crush minerals for makeup. The tools were specially shaped so they could also serve as applicators for eyeshadow and eyeliner. And thanks to the their loops, women could carry these handy objects around their necks, as the Guardian’s Mark Brown reports.
Wroxeter, known in centuries past as Viriconium, was a thriving metropolis, once the fourth-largest city in Roman Britain. Today, you can see the remains of its bath house, forum and towering basilica wall, with orange-red tiles still visible in the stonework. The newly identified cosmetic tools offer further evidence of Viriconium’s prosperity—they would have been used by relatively affluent women—and its connections to the wider ancient world. According to English Heritage, the grinders “were a response to the import of cosmetics and ideas about personal beauty coming from the Mediterranean and Roman provinces as far away as Egypt.”
Like many women of the Roman empire, the ladies of Viriconium would have wanted pale skin, pink cheeks and dark eyes; using their grinders, they could crush charcoal and even precious stones—like lapis lazuli or azurite—for the desired effect. English Heritage has published a nifty video recreating a Roman makeup look. And the ancient cosmetic grinders are now on display, for the first time, at Wroxeter Roman City, where visitors can explore Viriconium’s ruins, a reconstructed Roman town house and a museum.
For Moffett, the cosmetic artifacts represent a special find because they offer a unique glimpse into the lives of women in the Roman world. "When we think of the Roman period, conversation is often dominated by the masculine realms of influence, from Emperors and politics to battle tactics,” she says, “but of course women played a key role. It’s these functional, everyday items that really paint a picture of relatable women, to whom make-up was wholly accessible, following the trends of the time and using tools so similar to the ones we use today."