How Women Applied Makeup 3000 Years Ago

By: Ehsan Yaghmaie
Zanan; Social Magazine (Monthly)
Sep. 1999, No. 52
Pages: 49 - 52

Abstract: Archeological finds in the Iranian geographical plateau have revealed that the Iranian women and men applied makeup and arrayed themselves approximately 10,000 years ago. In the burnt Zabol city which is as old as 4,700 years ago, various instruments of make-up have been discovered by archaeologists.

To describe how women applied makeup many thousand years ago, is a difficult task. To say that how female cave dwellers used to array and beautify themselves within the geographical sphere now known as Iran, is not easy and the answer to such a question can be found only by a few archaeological excavations and rare records unearthed from ancient times. From a few records survived from such a time it is evident that not only women but men also used to apply cosmetics and that their makeup stemmed from religious beliefs rather than beautification ends.

Archeological discoveries dating back to about 10 thousand years ago in several caves such as the Kamarband Cave, the Hooto Cave (in Mazandaran) and Bisotoon Cave in Kermanshah show that women and men used the bones and teeth of hunted animals and even colorful stones to beautify themselves. Thus, the remains of animal horns, colorful stones and the skins and shells of aquatic species such as bivalves point to the first human makeup material in Iran. Exploration and research in Iveh and Gol plains in Bakhtiari region (the heart of Zagros mountainous range), has also led to a series of evidences. In the caves of this region, which were the first hunting man's settlement at the end of the ice age, production of stone tools became popular. In these settlements besides scythe-shaped stone tools, daggers, wide shredders, grindstones and ..., several pieces of hematite stones have also been discovered from which red dye was extracted. Most probably this dye was used to paint male and female face and bodies, because the caves which served as shelter for women and children during hunting or war or emergency conditions, were void of images and paintings. The history of these human settlements dates back to 20 to 40 thousand years ago!

Although in Ganj Dareh (Hersin, Kermanshah) the first town/village in Iran, constructed some 8 thousand years ago (which has been wholly destroyed now), no painted walls or paintings on walls have been traced, several samples of animal bones on which they have worked reveal that the bones were used as ornamental material to beautify human beings. In the excavations made in Zagheh Dasht ancient region in Qazvin, in a building which the archaeologists believe to be a prayer house, the walls have been decorated with a margin in regular geometrical and cremated images. The ornaments contains six parallel rows in alternate black and white and the length of the margin is approximately 30 centimeters. The residents of Dashte Qazvin and cave do not, however, seem to have applied makeup in the same manner that they decorated their prayer house.



With the expansion of civilization centers and combination of various cultures, one can trace more relics. For example the first series of combs were unearthed in the burnt city of Zabol and the oldest comb belongs to 4,700 years ago. So much art and test is applied for the adornment and perfection of these combs which leads us to say with confidence that such art had flourished earlier. The only difference is that we have not found yet older combs in our archaeological excavations. The combs can be divided into two categories.

1. Rectangular wooden combs approximately 6 x 5 cm in size with 20 to 30 tooths of 2 cm height at the two sides of which some embossed ornaments are visible.

2. Quadrangular wooden combs approximately 4 x 4 cm in size, 15 to 20 teeth of 2.5 cm height which are ornamented by parallel or cross section lines. Such combs have continued for four centuries. Also a wooden shoe mold (if it can be called as a decorative article) has been traced. Nowadays botany has revealed remains of tamarisk, poplar and elm trees in the Kerman burnt city which makes us believe that such items were more abundant several thousand years ago and that the Zaboli artists succeeded to make better use of their green and cheerful territory.

Excavations in a radius of several kilometers in the same area has led to discovery of agate, pearls and other semi-precious stones. Such stones were most probably used with the turquoise (which was probably imported from Badakhshan, Afghanistan) and the assorted types of necklaces, bracelets, rings... shows how much the people (and specially women) of the burnt city were aware of the value of cosmetics and their application. Meanwhile as long as no older combs are discovered we must owe invention of the comb to Sistani women and that the combs were invented both for makeup and decoration.



Five thousand years ago apparently Kermani women and men were more in love with makeup and decoration than any other civilized tribes. The first indication of use of white powder has been traced in this area by archaeologists in Iran. Dr. Mir Abedin Kaboli, the head of the Shahdad or Khabis exploration team in Kerman, thus describes the Iranian cities: "...Without exception every tomb or every pair of stones contained white powder made of lead or silver. As a consequence the archaeologists at Dashte Lut believed that men also used to array themselves. Nearly all the vessels were full of white powder. Besides white powder some tombs contained small metal vessels (smaller than a saucer) or very small bowls whose bottom and body was painted with a red matter. ... Couldn't these matters be red powder?"

This red matter that the explorer believes to have been used by women and men to redden their cheeks is most probably the hematite stone which has not only been discovered in Shahdad but also in the Iveh and Gol plains and Tappeh Yahya (Yahya hill) in Jiroft, which was another civilization metropolis in Kerman region.



As long as no tweezers are traced in other regions at an earlier period we must consider them as the invention of the Shahdadian people. In graves dug in this center of ancient civilization, tweezers have been discovered similar to modern tweezers only smaller in size and employed exactly for such purposes besides white powder. In addition to many other applications jewels and minerals such as agate, turquoise, limestone or plaster stones, gold, silver, lead, bronze and even shells were among the various instruments used for makeup or decoration in Shahdad which is really astonishing. In the excavations carried out in 1971 a very delicate bracelet made of turquoise, white stone and silver was discovered which can be considered as the most ancient decorative inlaid work. The archaeologist who has discovered this bracelets, has given the following description: ".... The beads are very small and thinly polished. The bracelet is made of rectangular silver gems and in between the two gems three tiny beads were laid. Besides silver gems a number of thin silver beads with three holes accompanied the bracelets which were probably bored to adjust the beads. When red, white and blue tiny beads are arrayed in three rows with silver gems, it will render special charm to the bracelet. The structure of jewelry fabricated by Shahdadi artists such as necklaces, bracelets, foot and nose ornaments, earring, ring, fetters, ornamentals pins for hairs or dress, semi crown, ... are more or less geometrical in shape. These artists were so advanced in their fabrication of jewelry and ornaments that they even painted images by herbs on beads and special agate. Fabrication of such makeup and ornamental material called for very advanced craft. Also the artists were quartered at a special district in the city. Thus Dr. Kaboli explored large areas to reach the ornamental implements and material and in the end he discovered a district which he named the jewelers and smiths' district.

The most important question posed by the archaeologists is about the structure of tiny and delicate objects (such as ornamental objects and special beads). How these tiny and delicate objects were fabricated with all this art? What methods and tools were used to bore such soft and tiny objects? How were the turquoise and agate polished? Were they first polished then bored or were they bored and then polished? How could the Shahdadi artist masterfully polish and bore the jewels and what tools did he employ? The bored ornamented beads in Shahdad area are all uniform and delicate whether stones or metals. Even nowadays with all our advanced tools we must pay much attention to two very important factors when boring beads and specially the precious ones. We must be careful lest they break or their edges are shorn away. Excavations in the Dehqan Tappeh region near Shahdad has led to the discovery of tools used for polishing and boring beads. These items have nearly ascertained archeologies that the Shahdadi artists used to employ two methods to bore beads. Some artists bored the bead first then they polished it and others did the contrary.

Not only the southeast and western regions in Iran but also the central regions in Iran have had an important share in application of makeup and adornments and extraction of stones. Archeological excavations at Tappeh Si Arg in Kashan or Tappeh Hessar in Damghan have more or less unveiled the same extent of makeup material or ornamental ware. Surely after earthenware the ornamental and decorative beads discovered from 4,600 B.C. to 1,800 B.C. (6,600 years ago) are the most frequent finds in this region. Surely pearl, turquoise (probably extracted from a mine at Kuye Zar, Damghan), agate, and various types of turquoise, copper, silver, gold and unbaked or baked lime grains and tens of other jewels and precious, semi-precious or cheap metals form a treasure house of makeup and decorative items. The ornamental objects are so assorted that one marvels at so much genius and invention. Rings in various forms, necklaces, special crowns for heads, earrings, foot ornaments, bracelets and even metal beads which might be called family insignia are so adorned that one can say each of them enjoys a special artistic value. No grave has been dug in Tappeh Hessar which has failed to unveil ornamental objects. Even children's tombs contain such objects.

With the discovery of a collection of ornamental objects and make-up and cosmetics from cheap animal bone to gold and silver one wonders whether the Iranian men and women used to array and beautify their faces many thousand years ago? We have no doubt that men and women used to redden their cheeks with hematite in ancient times, but doubts about valid evidences that could point to female makeup was looming until several masks and statues were unearthed in the Haft Tappeh Plain, Khuzestan, which wholly dismissed such doubts. In the masks the eyebrows are extended and black, lips and cheeks were rosy and below the eyes were lined up to the eyebrow. Most important of all was their method of hairdressing. In the statue of an ancient queen not only her plaits and curls and length of tresses are distinctly displayed but the method of collecting the hair behind the head in the shape of a crescent is also quite conspicuous.

Nowadays we can at least believe that women who lived 3,500 years ago at Haft Tappeh arrayed and beatified themselves like those who are living now in Ahwaz and Haft Tappeh. In the competition for makeup men did not lag behind and they arrayed so much their faces that it was difficult to distinguish them from women. Surena, the brave and fearless Iranian chieftain, used to array and beautify his face even in the battle field so much that it surprised his enemies!



Water was the first mirror used by female and male cave dwellers, but after the Iranians discovered, melted, shaped and polished wide sheets of metals that could reflect images, they started to build mirrors for reflecting images. What is surprising is that the metal mirrors were also ornamented i.e. to say the back and the handle of the mirror carried very beautiful mythological images. The oldest ornamented mirror is 4,500 years old, but the best mirrors which were fully decorated are approximately 3,000 years old and they are found nearly in all regions in Iran specially north, northwest (Grand Azarbaijan), Lorestan and Ilam. But a review of the latest excavations show that modern mirrors made of glass which are used nowadays were invented by Azari women. In excavations of Hafttavan Tappeh in Azarbaijan of the tombs belonging to the beginning of the Sassanian era, two sheets of glass whose back had been coated by tar and silver were discovered. These mirrors were used exactly in the same way that modern mirrors are used. The archaeologist who has discovered the mirror says, "The back of the mirrors was coated by tar and it seams that they used silver to give better luster to its back, because nowadays mirrors are smooth and bright." Regretfully both these exceptional and rare mirrors have been taken to the British Museum and they attract the attention of many a visitor to the first and oldest of Iranian mirrors.

A cursory glimpse at our history proves that the first millennium B.C. (i.e. three years ago) was the peak period for the art of decoration and makeup in Iran and a review of the scattered remains and small population and amplitude of the ornaments and makeup at that time confirms our belief that jewelry, cosmetics, makeup and ornaments were more popular in Iran specially among women in the past than today. Ancient archaeological finds dating back to the first millennium B.C. throughout Iran point to the diversity and abundance of female cosmetics. Various types of hanging ornaments such as metal, bone, shell and stone (even the most cheap stone) and glass hangings in various forms of rings, bracelets, armlets, anklets (mostly with a small bell added), hair binders, forehead binders, neck binders (made of earthenware, metal and bone) ornamental buttons, hair and dress pins, various ear and fingernail cleaning tools (like the fingernail files used today), tweezers, decorations of tows and hands (which is no more popular now) and tens of other finds whose uses are not yet clear for the archaeologists.



It is not clear whether Iranian women and men have used hairpieces in ancient times or not? In an excavation of tombs of Ilamite women at Poshtkuh, Lorestan, various springs with different diameters have been discovered. Lor women used to wrap their hairs in the springs. They laid a long rod with a pointed tip at one end and ornamented tip at the other end and used the spring to render form to their hair. In the excavation of a graveyard at Chenarbashi, Ilam, such hair wrappers with a middle rod or an outside rod have been discovered. One may assert that natural hairs were wrapped and twisted with a uniform artificial hair. Although females are not shown in all the images in Persepolis, the beards and hairs of the kings and solders show that they were using artificial hair. Such things are quite obvious in the Bisotoon inscriptions. In the description of Cyrus, Xenophon says: ".... Cyrus had drawn lines under his eyes. He had adorned his skin and was wearing a hairpiece such as those used by the Medians (Book 1, Chapter 3). The image of a barrel-shaped Achamanid seal in Louvre shows a distinct Achamenian aristocratic lady with full makeup. The lady is sitting on a stool and has laid her feet on a stand and is looking at her face in the mirror. Her maid is standing behind her and is cooling her with ancient fans such as those used in villages. Another maid is standing in front of the lady which seems to present her with a hairpiece."

The Achamenians were very much attached to ornaments and makeup. As a result many sorts of jewels and ornaments such as grotesque necklaces, glass, bronze or wooden collyrium containers with tiny and big teeth have been discovered. What interested a jewel smith during the Achamenian times were mythological images. but the artists were also attentive to animal and herbal images. The Achamenians bracelets were thin and charming and the two ends were adorned by the heads of lion, ram, goose, deer, snake, ... The Parthians were so much attached to dazzling makeup and ornaments, which was popular in the east of Iran and which they had learned from the dependent nations, that the Goths and Germans were influenced by such ornaments and they even imitated the Parthian beatification style for their make up. Jewelry and make was so popular among the Parthians that it even stretched to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and influenced the Merovingians in the later years. They were using various types of adornments, pendants, tiny pins, rings and precious stones, the most delicate and beautiful perfume, beautiful earthenware and glass beads to defy ill omens, ornamented belts and fasteners, fetters (to bind the forehead), hair holders and thousands of other ornaments. The Sassanians were much in love with ornaments and use of semi-precious ornamental objects. For example one example of thousand types of ornamented belt fastener from the Sassanian period now preserved in Wisebaden Museum is adorned by pink agate. The name of the owner of the belt is inscribed as Ardeshir at the back of the belt.

The Iranian women were so much in love with ornaments and makeup that they would not give up the alluring habit even after death, so that several decades after the advent of Islam many Iranian women were buried with their ornaments by imitating Sassanian customs. In the archaeological excavations at Tabark Graveyard, the Bibi Shahrbanoo hills at Rey city belonging to the third or fourth century after the birth of Islam it has been discovered that women were buried with their ornaments even then. During the excavations of one of the hills a pair of gold earrings adorned by emerald and agate and in the shape of peacock was discovered, which was no less skillful in production, polish and smithcraft than the jewelry and smith work belonging to the Sassanian period. ... And thus this is just the beginning...

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