Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ancient Egyptian Make-up: a form of Self Expression

      The ancient Egyptian culture has been a subject of fascination for as long as anyone can remember. Tourists flock by the thousands every year to gaze at the ancient monuments that were built thousands of years ago. However, it is not just the ancient architecture that holds infinite archaeological value. In more recent times, archaeologists have done research dissecting the use of makeup in ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians left behind countless artifacts depicting pharaohs and other important figures wearing and/or applying make-up. These discoveries have led archaeologists to wonder about the art of self expression through make-up.

An ancient Egyptian painting illustrating the important of appearance. The figures in this painting are shown wearing traditional eye make-up and it can be interpreted that they are helping one another apply it.
      In the 1963 film Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor donned the elaborate, dark kohl make-up which she immortalized as a fashion statement of her time. The desire to look a particular way by using make-up is nothing new. The idea is thousands of years old and the ancient Egyptians used make-up and its techniques to highlight their features and to look good just like many of us do today. In today's society we use make-up, lotions and topicals to help improve upon our "natural beauty". Medicines and remedies are tools used to help eliminate blemishes and make-ups are helpful in enhancing the eyes and perfecting the complexion. All of those techniques things have been used by the Egyptians as well. Old papyrus scripts have been found to have recipes for lotions to help prevent signs of aging, such as wrinkles. It remains unknown whether or not these remedies were successful or were even use, but it is the idea that is most important.

Pictured is Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra (1963). Her make-up is an interpretation of the traditional look that royalty wore.
      In a recent 2007 London article from The Times called The Eyes Have It, curator David P. Silverman understands that paintings and artifacts illustrate the use of make-up but he is unsure as to how much was truly used in everyday life. Silverman also states that “it is hard to know precisely what ancient Egyptian maquillage [make-up] looked like” (Betts). While this is true, there is also enough evidence to support the fact that pharaohs and those associated with them wore make-up. Lisa Manniche, a professor of Egyptology with a vast knowledge on ancient beautification, believes that make-up was quite an important component of ancient Egyptian civilization. She notes that the prominence of applied make-up is a valuable characteristic that should not be ignored. Manniche states, "[A]mong the earliest known artifacts are palettes used to grind the substances made to enhance the appeal of gods, royalty and ordinary mortals" (Bett). Egyptians were putting on powders and applying eyeliner to appeal to others. It was a sign of stature and royalty wore make-up to express their social standing. This was clear to archaeologists when tombs of pharaohs were excavated. King Tut's burial mask is an example of this. His mask is adorned with beautiful painting, but what stands out is the mask's outlined eyes. The eyes depict the use of make-up and the elaborate illustration tells us that King Tut was of royal descent. It also becomes clear that not only women wore make-up, but men did as well. For men it was a sign of status and just like in today's society a man might buy a nice car to show he has a high socio-economic standing.
      The ancient Egyptians truly believed in beautification and the importance of physical appearance. It was a pharaoh's way of expressing who he was to others and those of royal descent also used make-up to show their social standing. While other cultures used jewels to show their status, the Egyptian culture used make-up. Their concept of beautification is similar to ours today. While we do not necessarily use make-up as a way to show off our status, we do use it to enhance our features. The use of make-up is different in every culture and will continue to be, but it is important to know that it has been a part of culture and self expression of thousands of years.

Written by Estee Ward

Betts, Hannah. "The Eyes Have It." The Times (London) 17 Nov. 2007: 59. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 26 Oct. 2010. .

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