Millennia-old pendants revealed to be Roman makeup applicators

A replica of the Roman ‘pendant’ being used in a makeup tutorial

 A replica of the Roman ‘pendant’ being used in a makeup tutorial. Photograph: English Heritage/PA

For a century they were considered pretty 2,000-year-old pendants with no use other than for decoration.

But English Heritage will reveal on Wednesday that they had a fascinating purpose: as makeup applicators that the more well-heeled woman in Roman Britain would have used to put on eye makeup. The fashion was for heavy and dark, often using soot or charcoal.

The English Heritage curator Cameron Moffett said they were an example of British innovation – a response to the import of cosmetics and ideas of beauty from the Mediterranean and Roman provinces as far away as Egypt.

The copper alloy objects were excavated at Wroxeter in Shropshire – once the fourth-largest city in Roman Britain, comparable in size to Pompeii – in the 1910s and 1920s.

The objects uncovered at Wroxeter
 The objects uncovered at Wroxeter. Photograph: English Heritage/PA

They were catalogued as “lunate pendants” until a recent re-examination revealed them to be cosmetic grinders: essentially a small mortar and pestle to mix charcoal with a drop of fat before applying it round the eye. Loops allowed them to be carried on a cord round the neck.

Moffett said the small objects literally changed the face of Britain. “Being able to re-identify these pendants as cosmetic sets is hugely important to our understanding of the women who lived and worked at Wroxeter Roman city.”

She said the conversation around the Roman period was often dominated by what men were up to, from emperors and politics to battle tactics.

“It is a bit more obvious and in your face,” Moffett said. “You see a fort and it was built by men. But once you look at excavations from substantial towns that were there for hundreds of years, there is a terrific amount of evidence of the female population and the children. You need to look for it.”

She said the discovery highlighted what a thriving, prosperous and metropolitan place Wroxeter was during the Roman period.

The makeup applicators will go on display at the site from Wednesday. English Heritage will also launch a demonstration video showing how people can get the Roman look, after a previous tutorial on Elizabeth I’s look received more than 4m views on YouTube.

A woman in Roman British-style dress and makeup
 A woman in Roman British-style dress and makeup. Photograph: English Heritage

The Roman regime begins with applying lanolin, which is the heavy, sticky and pungent wax from sheep’s wool. “It sounds a bit disgusting,” said the makeup artist Rebecca Butterworth. “But it’s an incredibly effective moisturiser … it contains a lot of ingredients that in modern-day skincare we really look out for. Your skin will feel fantastic but it might be a little smelly.”


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