Wherever she was headed, she was going there with her face on. Archaeologists uncovered a 3rd-century sarcophagus containing the skeleton of a Roman woman—as well as a wealth of ancient beauty products, jewelry and a silver hand mirror. The discovery, made late last year, was announced this week in a press conference in west Germany, the Associated Press reported.
According to a statement released by the LandesMuseum in Bonn, Germany, the stone grave was found on the ancient route between present-day Cologne and Trier. The sarcophagus is vast—the lid alone weighed two tons—and required a full week to excavate. Inside, researchers found the body of a young woman, believed to have been between 25 and 30 at the time of her death. Buried with her were a wealth of personal items: a string of pearls, perfume bottles, a make-up palette, and a small jar, inscribed with a Latin phrase for good luck.
Speaking to the German newspaper Der Spiegel, local historian Susanne Willer commented, “The focus of the objects is clearly related to jewelry and cosmetics.”
The ancient Romans, like the Egyptians before them, had a fascination for beauty and cosmetics, with the Roman historian Livy once describing them as a female pastime equivalent to men’s interest in warfare. “Cosmetics and adornments are women’s decoration,” he wrote. “They delight and boast of them and this is what our ancestors called women’s estate.”
Women would lighten their skin, rub pigments into their lips and cheeks and sometimes rub sparkling antimony (a silver-white metal) onto their eyelids as a kind of eyeshadow. Perfumes were also common, sometimes made of olive oil and rosewater.
Though it’s relatively unusual for Roman tombs to have cosmetics in them, beauty products have regularly been found in other ancient tombs across the world. Makeup pots and palettes are a frequent discovery in ancient Egyptian tombs, where men and women alike would ring their eyes with kohl and perfume their bodies.
Some ancient ingredients are still in use today: Beeswax, for instance, is a common ingredient in many modern lip salves, while kohl regularly gets used in modern eyeliner. Others, like lead, are now known to be poisonous—though, as archaeologist Sally Pointer told the BBC, it was superficially well-suited to the job. “In itself it’s a good face powder—it’s the most lovely fine clingy white powder imaginable,” she said. “It’s a shame it is toxic and accumulates in your system and does horrible things to you.”
While this young woman clearly valued beauty, it’s not clear whether it was a fondness for precious, toxic cosmetics that played a hand in her premature death.