Today we spend time and money making ourselves look and smell attractive. But how did people in the past do this? We often assume that everyone smelt really bad but, as these objects from Warwickshire Museum show, people have always cared about looking good!
Check out the objects below to find out more!
- Roman beauty secrets
- Bronze pestle and mortar
- Miniature pots
- Stone cosmetic palette
- Bronze tweezers
- Grimstock Hill
Roman beauty secrets
Looking good was important for Roman men as well as women. Roman women spent many hours perfecting their make-up but even soldiers carried basic equipment for keeping clean.
Make-up was often a sign of wealth. Women of higher social status tried to achieve pale white complexions. They used stone palettes to grind up a range of early make-up ingredients such as chalk, or even tin and lead.
Museum of London archaeologists recently discovered a sealed jar of ointment whilst excavating a Roman site in Southwark, South London. Scientists analysed the contents and found a tin-based substance. When they made a modern replica, they found that it actually does turn skin white!
Below are some objects from our collections that tell us about how Roman men and women kept themselves beautiful.
A fragment of a Roman cosmetic mirror found at Alcester. Mirrors might have been displayed in the home as precious and decorative objects. This below example is made of bronze but you can still see part of the shiny tin plate surface.
This wooden comb was also found at Alcester. Both men and women used these combs for their hair or even for removing lice and fleas from clothes and furs.
Just like today, fashions in hairstyles changed frequently. Some Roman women wore elaborate wigs made of human hair. Complicated styles were held in place by decorative pins.
Bronze pestle and mortar
These objects show what a Roman cosmetic pestle and mortar would have looked like. They were found separately at the Grimstock Hill Roman temple site, Coleshill, Warwickshire.
The pestle below is small, and has a bow shaped end. It may have been used by a Roman woman to apply her eye-liner. Made of bronze, it is also a decorative object and would have been precious to its owner. It may even have been worn around the neck on a piece of cord or displayed somewhere in the home. After being discovered at Grimstock Hill, the pestle has been cleaned, conserved and dated to 100-200 AD.
Although this miniature mortar does not match the pestle, it has a similar shape. Like the pestle, the mortar is made of bronze with a looped end. Other similar boat-shaped pestle and mortars have been found in other Roman sites around Britain.
Archaeologists found these examples at a Roman temple site. This could mean that they were left as offerings to the gods.
These Roman pots may have had a double life.
A Roman woman might have used them as an ordinary domestic object to store perfumes or cosmetic ointments.
But, these pots were found at a temple site at Grimstock Hill. Archaeologists have found similar pots at other Roman religious sites. This might mean they were used in religious ceremonies or left as offerings to the gods.
These pots are only a few centimetres tall and the only known examples from Warwickshire.
Tiny bronze spoons like this one formed part of Roman ‘toilet sets’. These were groups of tools, like spoons and tooth picks, used as part of the daily hygiene routine.
This spoon was probably used for cleaning the ears or for spooning out cosmetics from pots like the ones above. Again, archaeologists have found toilet sets in other temple sites so, they could have been left as offerings to the gods.
Stone cosmetic palette
A stone palette and pair of tweezers found at Birch Abbey, Alcester during an excavation in the 1960s.
This small piece of stone with shaped edges is one half of a Roman cosmetic palette. It may have been used as a smooth surface for mixing cosmetic ingredients or medicines.
Other examples of cosmetic palettes have been found within temple sites or buried as grave goods. Like other every day cosmetic items, they may have had a religious significance.
> Back to top
Tweezers were an important part of a Roman’s everyday grooming routine. It was fashionable for Romans of both sexes to remove facial hair.
Tweezers were part of the ‘toilet set’ along with other tools like ear scoops and toothpicks. Again, these have been found within temple sites and they may have been left as offerings.
Grimstock Hill, in North Warwickshire, was excavated by archaeologists in the 1970s. They discovered a large Roman settlement at the site in modern day Coleshill.
The Roman army first moved into the area in about AD48. Twenty years later, most people living in the area were probably civilians.
The settlement was half way between the larger Roman centres of Mancetter and Metchley, near Birmingham. There may even have been a road linking them together but archaeologists haven’t discovered it yet!
Grimstock Hill also had a temple. The first temple building was made of wood but it was rebuilt in stone in the 2nd century AD.
The people who worshipped at the temple may have practised a mix of native Celtic religion and Roman classical belief. The Grimstock Hill temple was extended over time and became one of the largest of its kind in the country.