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What Was “Eye Cream” Doing in a 2,200-Year-Old Tomb in West Turkey?

The find was discovered in a cemetery located in the ancient city of Aizanoi

Aizanoi photographed in 2017 (Flickr/CC 2.0 by Carole Raddato)
smithsonian.com

Eye cream: exorbitantly overpriced moisturizer or restorative healer? One approximately 2,200-year-old soldier appears to have joined the latter side of the debate; an excavation of his tomb in a cemetery unearthed in the ancient city of Aizanoi, located near present-day Kutahya city in Turkey, reveals the soldier was buried with what archaeologists believe to be an ancient jar of “eye cream.”

As Muharrem Cin and Can Erozden at the state-run outlet Anadolu Agency report, the find was part of a dig shedding light on the funerary practices of the area's one-time residents. Aizanoi, which is notable for its well-preserved Roman ruins, was first explored by the German Archaeological Institute in 1926. Today, archaeological surveys have been taken over by Turkey's Pamukkale University, which continue to reveal more about the ancient city (that's currently vying for an Unesco World Heritage designation).

This particular tomb seems to have belonged to a male soldier, chief archaeologist of the excavation, Elif Özer of Pamukkale, tells Andalou Agency. She and her team believe human remains in the cemetery were cremated before ritual burial, during which tombs were loaded up with goods for a possible afterlife. Apparently, the male soldier—or at least his surviving relatives—prioritized the health of his eyes. Among the trinkets in his tomb was a jar Özer and her colleagues identified as a container for this sort of cosmetic.

In truth, the term “eye cream” may not do this supposed substance justice. Özer and her team believe the substance was probably used to treat eye dryness, which, in the centuries since, doctors have determined to often be the result of a vitamin A deficiency. (The cure can be as simple as bulking up your diet with animal products, leafy greens, or yellow and orange plants.)

But the ancient denizens of Aizanoi may have been onto something. The 2,200-year-old eye cream likely contained a plant from the Lycium genus (“lykion” in Greek), a group that includes goji berries—which are known to be rich sources of vitamin A. In fact, goji berry-based treatments may have been a pretty widespread phenomenon in the ancient world, possibly originating in Chinese medicine. In recent years, use of Lycium plants in promoting eye health has been reinvigorated, and modern studies show that these nutrient-rich plants can protect vision in rodents.

While most goji-centric treatments throughout the years have relied on simply eating the fruits, it’s possible an eye cream, like this newly discovered artifact, may have relieved dryness as well. Similar jars, believed to have contained the same product, have been found among other ancient ruins of the era in the Mediterranean, as well as in India. However, most other experts believe topically applied Lycium eye creams were probably most useful for inflammation of skin around the eye (a condition akin to pinkeye), rather than the eye itself. Whatever the exact cause of the irritation, this cream was in high demand to provide some much-needed relief.

Though its contents have been lost to millennia of entombment, the eye cream jar is now on display at the Kutahya Archaeology Museum. Clearly, the pain-alleviating properties of this salve were strong enough to earn it a free ticket to the afterlife—though after more than two millennia below ground, even the most dedicated patrons of this eye cream are probably hurting for a facial.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Digital Editor at PBS NOVA and Story Collider producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Smithsonian magazine.

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