The world’s oldest cosmetic face cream, complete with the finger marks of its last user 2,000 years ago, has been found by archaeologists excavating a Roman temple on the banks of London’s River Thames.
Measuring 6 cm by 5 cm, the tightly sealed, cylindrical tin can was opened yesterday at the Museum of London to reveal a pungent-smelling white cream.
“It seems to be very much like an ointment, and it’s got finger marks in the lid … whoever used it last has applied it to something with their fingers and used the lid as a dish to take the ointment out,” museum curator Liz Barham said as she opened the box.
The superbly made canister, now on display at the museum, was made almost entirely of tin, a precious metal at that time. Perhaps a beauty treatment for a fashionable Roman lady or even a face paint used in temple ritual, the cream is currently undergoing scientific analysis.
“We don’t yet know whether the cream was medicinal, cosmetic or entirely ritualistic. We’re lucky in London to have a marshy site where the contents of this completely sealed box must have been preserved very quickly - the metal is hardly corroded at all,” said Nansi Rosenberg, a senior archaeological consultant on the project.
“This is an extraordinary discovery,” Federico Nappo, an expert on ancient Roman cosmetics of Pompeii. “It is likely that the cream contains animal fats. We know that the Romans used donkey’s milk as a treatment for the skin. However, it should not be very difficult to find out the cream’s composition.”
The pot, which appears to have been deliberately hidden, was found at the bottom of a sealed ditch in Southwark, about two miles south of central London.
Placed at the point where three roads meet near the river crossing - Watling St from Dover, Stane St from Chichester and the bridgehead road over the Thames - the site contains the foundations of two Roman-Celtic temples, a guest house, an outdoor area suitable for mass worship, plinths for statues and a stone pillar.
The complex, which last year revealed a stone tablet with the earliest known inscription bearing the Roman name of London, dates to around the mid-2nd century. It is the first religious complex to be found in the capital, rare evidence of organized religion in London 2,000 years ago.
“The analysis and interpretation of the finds has only just begun, and I’ve no doubt there are further discoveries to be made as we piece together the jigsaw puzzle we’ve excavated,” Rosenberg said. “But it already alters our whole perception - Southwark was a major religious focus of the Roman capital.”