Tube of Ancient Red Lipstick Unearthed in Iran

New research suggests the nearly 4,000-year-old cosmetic may be among the oldest discoveries of its kind

Pigment Vial
The ancient red pigment was held in an intricately decorated chlorite vial. Massimo Vidale via Scientific Reports

Researchers say that a small vial of deep red paste found in Iran’s Jiroft region is likely an ancient tube of lipstick. The mineral mixture, housed in a decorated stone tube, could be nearly 4,000 years old, making it among the earliest ever discovered. 

The lipstick dates to between 1936 and 1687 B.C.E., according to a study published this month in the journal Scientific Reports. The team thinks the vial could have come from the Marḫaši, which, according to Mesopotamian texts, was a powerful civilization that occupied what’s now eastern Iran. Scientists write that the pigment’s advanced age “is far from surprising, considering the long-standing, well-known technical and aesthetic tradition in cosmetology in ancient Iran.”

The delicate container surfaced in 2001, when the Halil river flooded several ancient graveyards in southeastern Iran and dislodged items from the burials, according to Artnet’s Adam Schrader. It was later housed in the Archaeological Museum of Jiroft.

Lip pigment was just one of many beauty products used in ancient Iran. Perhaps the region’s most prominent cosmetic was eyeliner, which was made of a black powder called sormeh and worn by both women and men. Ancient Iranians also wore several kinds of powders on their cheeks and eyebrows.

Pigment Up-Close
An image of the cosmetic's mineralogical composition, enhanced with added colors indicating different substances Federico Zorzi via Scientific Reports

While studying the vial, researchers easily extracted the “loose, dark purple fine powder” and began testing its chemical makeup, per the study. Their analysis revealed that the powder is made of hematite (which produces its deep red color), manganite, braunite, galena, anglesite and plant-based waxes.

This mixture, they write, “bears a striking resemblance to the recipes of contemporary lipsticks.”

Intricately decorated with “fine incisions,” the vial is made of greenish chlorite. While the container’s style resembles other chlorite artifacts from the ancient Jiroft culture, other characteristics are unique. As co-author Massimo Vidale, an archaeologist at the University of Padua in Italy, tells McClatchy’s Aspen Pflughoeft, “The size and shape of the vial were completely different from those of other cosmetic vials from the same period.”

The product’s appearance “supports the idea that cosmetic products in ancient times were branded, packaged and traded in standard types of containers with specific forms, allowing for easy visual identification,” just like contemporary cosmetics, write the researchers.

The lipstick may have once been fragrant: It contained vegetal fibers, which could have been added to produce a scent.

While researchers now know more about the vial’s contents, its owner remains mysterious. Little is known about the identities of any bodies buried in the region’s ancient graveyards, which makes drawing conclusions about the lipstick wearer difficult, reports Artnet.

Vidale tells Smithsonian magazine that cosmetics are an often overlooked branch of ancient metallurgy.

“The scarce attention paid to this ancient Bronze Age industry, I believe, is due to the fact that it has been considered a secondary ‘women’s matter,’” Vidale says, noting the probability that ancient men also wore makeup. “In contrast, it was a costly expression of luxury that played a crucial role in shaping social interaction in the hierarchies of the early cities.”

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