May 20, 2024

The world’s oldest known lipstick was worn up to 5,000 years ago in what is now southern Iran, says a new study.

The deep red lip-paint, contained in a stone vial, was found at an ancient graveyard site in 2001, but it took researchers until now to identify it.

Unlike modern lipsticks, it was probably applied with a brush, say the international team of scientists.

The discovery sheds new light on “public images of female allure” in the fast-changing Bronze Age, they add.

One of the researchers who analysed it, archaeology professor Massimo Vidale at the University of Padua in Italy, told BBC News he liked to imagine it being worn by the women of “the elite societies of 5,000 years ago”.

The vial containing the cosmetic paste was unearthed at a third millennium BC graveyard near the Halil River in Kerman Province, in south-eastern Iran.

It was one of numerous artefacts that surfaced after flooding and fell into the hands of looters before being recovered by the Iranian authorities.

Analysis linked it to the “powerful” Bronze Age Marhasi civilisation that flourished in that part of Mesopotamia at the time.

Prof Vidale told the BBC: “We were surprised because the substance was very different from the grey, compact ones we had previously found in other flagons.

“When we entered a chisel into the opening, a loose, homogeneous powder, dark grey-purplish in colour, spilled out.”

When the team analysed the dried-up powder, they found it contained hematite, “giving the paste a deep red colour”.

This, combined with other ingredients including vegetable oils and waxes, formed “exactly what one would expect in a modern lipstick”, said Prof Vidale.

Society in the region has changed greatly since the Bronze Age and Iran’s modern theocracy takes a dim view of such cosmetic adornments.

But, back in the day, as the researchers say, the emerging elites of the era used make-up as part of “the display of luxury and superior status”.

The researchers also saw the need to look good as part of the “increasing social stress to which women were exposed in times of fast social change”.

Prof Vidale was wary of any definitive claim to have discovered the world’s oldest lipstick, since there was always the possibility that an earlier sample might turn up.

However, he said: “Let us say that our lip-paint is quite an early one, and I like to imagine the women of early Iran being the stars of the elite societies of 5,000 years ago. But future research will tell more.”

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