Exploring the obscure – my journey

Anointing the living and the dead – the art of perfumery in antiquity


The historical background


Perfumes played a very important role in the ancient civilizations. They were the symbol of highest status in the society. They were used for seduction, feasting, official ceremonies, religious rites, funerals and medical work (Castel et al. 2009).

The perfumes of antiquity were made in form of oil (plant-derived or animal grease) infused with fragrant materials like resins, spices, flowers and seeds (Theophrastus and Hort 1916). There were 3 major techniques for extracting the aroma from any plant material (Dayagi-Mendeles and Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem) 1993). Pressing involved crushing the aromatic material, very often in a press and then recovering the aromatic liquid by twisting them from a cloth bundle. This was one of the oldest methods and the most inefficient in expelling the aromatic ingredients. Cold steeping or enfleurage was applied mostly to the delicate flowers. The petals were spread on layer of animal fat and then placed between two boards in order to recover the aromatized fat after a few days of exposure. The hot steeping was the most popular method throughout antiquity (and I made a good use of it, too). The oil was pre-treated by addition of astringent substances like cardamom or calamus root mixed with wine or water. Afterwards the oil was heated to around 65o C in a double boiler to avoid direct exposure to heat.  After several steps of heating and mixing, more aromatics were added, with final goal of no ingredient dominating over the others (Dioscorides Pedanius, Osbaldeston, and Wood 2000). Sometimes dyes like madder or alkanet from borage plant were added during this process. Once the desired aroma was achieved, the infused oil was strained, filtered and transferred to containers, preferably made of stone or glass.

The use of perfumes greatly enhanced the trade in antiquity. Most resin gums and spices were obtained from the Far East and Arabia (Voudouri and Tesseromatis 2015). The various oils were either produced locally (omphacium or unripe olive oil, castor oil, bitter almond oil) or imported from Egypt (moringa and balanos oils) (Mortensen 2014).

In Etruscan Italy, the religious and funerary rites were always accompanied by large quantities of perfumes and ointments (Fig.1).

fig 1
Fig.1. Reliefs from archaic Etruria. A, Volterra urn relief representing a sacrifice to the gods with incense and B, Chiusi relief representing a funerary rite. The perfume/ointment bottle is prominently displayed (Bodiou et al. 2008).


We know that they import large quantities of expensive perfumes from Greece and islands (like chypre perfume from Cyprus). Proof can be found in abundance of containers for perfume storage with Greek provenience, excavated from various sites in Etruscan territories (Fig. 2) (Bodiou et al. 2008).

Fig.2. Types of perfume bottles found in Etruscan excavations. A, amphora, B and C, amphorisque (a small amphora, very often requiring a support to stay upright), D, aryballos or spherical bottle, E, aryballos worn like a purse (a piece of cord or chain was attached to the spherical bottle), F, unguentaria and G, extant pottery aryballoi. (Bodiou et al. 2008).


As far as the Parthian customs are concerned, we know that both perfumes and incense were used by the kings and aristocracy (Mohagheghzadeh, Zargaran, and Daneshamuz 2011). Infused oils (of the cheaper kind) were also used to pay the salaries of workers, together with food and clothing (Farmanfarmaian 2000).  Frankincense was used both for the living and in the funerary rites, similar to Roman customs (Castel et al. 2009). White sandalwood, camphor, balsam, aloewood, myrrh, rose, iris root, violet leaf, sweet marjoram, saffron and elecampane (Inula helenium) are mentioned in period sources (Grami 2013). Some of these substance are also mentioned in the recipe recorded by Pliny the Elder.

Some glassware and stoneware bottles survived to our times, but mostly from the pre-Parthian dynasty of Achaemenids (550-330 BCE) (Mohagheghzadeh, Zargaran, and Daneshamuz 2011).They have both the shape of spherical aryballoi and the spindle shape unguentaria (Fig.3).


fig 3.jpg
Fig.3. Perfume containers from ancient Persia. A, marble scent bottles, Achaemenid period, Persepolis, B, glass scent bottles, Sassanian period, Susa Museum and C, alabaster containers, Achaemenid period, Susa Museum,(Mohagheghzadeh, Zargaran, and Daneshamuz 2011).


Chapter 1 – The Etruscan ointment


We have the rare opportunity to research the life and death of Thana Presnti Plecunia Umranalisa, the Etruscan woman whose cremated remains were accompanied in the afterlife by her toiletry box. Among the items was an alabaster spindle shape unguentarium containing the ointment/perfume.

The Etruscan ointment is a considerably dense liquid, consisting of 5 ingredients,  moringa oil  (Moringa oleifera), Retsina Kourtoki white wine, mastic resin (Pistacia lentiscus var. Chia), pine resin (Pinus sp.) and Burgundy spruce resin (Pini burgundica). It may have been originally used in both perfumery and medicine as the resins besides having a sweet smell, are also known for their antiseptic, wound healing and embalming properties.


The extant perfume/ointment


There are several perfumes /ointments that survived from the Roman antiquity as deposits in pottery and glass containers (Bodiou et al. 2008; Mortensen 2014)(Brun, Fernandez, and Voinot 2015). The containers were mostly discovered within a funerary setting so the use of the particular ointments may have been connected to funerary customs and not necessarily used by the living people. The analysis of many of these deposits revealed that they contained vegetable oils, resins and gums and beeswax  (Mortensen 2014; Bodiou et al. 2008). Beeswax was used for liquid-proofing of pottery containers what would explain its presence in the ointments themselves (Bodiou et al. 2008). The ointment (Fig. 4C) from the Chiusi  (Italy) tomb of the Etruscan woman Thana Presnti Plecunia Umranalisa falls within these funerary finds (Colombini et al. 2009).


fig 4.jpgFig.4. The cosmetic finds excavated from Thana Presnti Plecunia Umranalisa tomb in Chiusi necropolis (Tuscany, Italy) (Colombini et al. 2009). A, the maple wood cosmetic case which contained the unguentarium, B, the alabaster unguentarium and C, the yellowish and harden contents inside the unguentarium.


Dated to 150-125 BCE, it was determined by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to contain a vegetable oil and two plant resins, a mastic and a Pinaceae. The oil was defined as very stable moringa (ben nuts) oil, which did not grow in Italy, but was originally introduced from Asia to Egypt where it was produced in large quantities for perfume and medicine use (Grami 2013). The mastic resin was probably imported from Chios, Greece. The species was not defined and the resin described as obtained from Anacardiaceae trees. Several species can be taken in consideration (Pistacia lentiscus, Pistacia atlantica, Pistacia terebinthus) as they were widely used by ancient Sumerians, Egyptians and Greeks (Langenheim 2003). The second resin of the pine family was not further characterized, besides containing diterpenoid and triterpenoid compounds. This allows for incorporation in edited recipe of one or more resin of the Pinaceae family like pine and spruce (Kirk-Othmer. 2012; Langenheim 2003). The recipe is summarized in Table 1:

The common name Plant Latin name Provenience (for ingredients used in this project) Function
Moringa oil Moringa oleifera Egypt carrier
Mastic resin Pistacia lentiscus var. Chia Greece scent/filler
Pine resin Pinus sp. Portugal scent/filler
Spruce resin Pini burgundica France scent/filler

Table 1. The ingredients for the ointment from Chiusi, Italy.


Mastic resin has a sweet scent and from my previous experiments, seems to be the main scent in the ointment. Part of resin was treated with wine to extract the scent. Once the base was created by mixing the soaked resins and moringa oil, more resin was added during the limited heat exposure to balance the overall scent. Addition of the spruce resin added more of the terpenoid flavor, so associated with coniferous trees.


Materials, tools and methods


The aromatics, spices, herbs and oils were sourced from various sellers on eBay and Etsy. I also bought some items from Community Pharmacy in my city to help a local business.

The main source for rare resins and essential oils is http://www.scents-of-earth.com/index.html.

Retsina Kourtoki wine was purchased at a local co-op store.

The replicas of period pottery and glassware were acquired from local charity shops and eBay and Etsy sellers.

The bain-marie (or double boiler) used for gentle heating of the aromatic mixtures is actually a butter heater, working on tea lights as source of heat (Fig.5).


fig 5

Fig. 5. The bain-marie (double boiler) fits different shape of glass vessels. Shown the shallow bowl with the Etruscan ointment.


The glass bowls with tight covers used for infusing oil and wine are part of my collection of kitchen glassware.

For crushing herbs and aromatics I used both the granite and bamboo mortars.

At some point I want to experiment with a portable ceramic stove but this kind of work would have to be done outdoors and not in my tiny apartment. The equipment used by the people of antiquity to make perfumes was relatively simple (Fig.6) and the basic tools like flasks, funnels and mortars has not changed a lot since then  (Brun 2000) (Brun, Fernandez, and Voinot 2015; Dayagi-Mendeles and Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem) 1993).


fig 6.jpgFig.6. Group of excavated pottery vessels which may have been a property of perfume shop. En Gedi, late 7th-early 6th century BCE (Dayagi-Mendeles and Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem) 1993).


Dioscorides ‘De Materia Medica’ was the source for methods used to extract aroma from the plant matter (Dioscorides Pedanius, Osbaldeston, and Wood 2000; Brun, Fernandez, and Voinot 2015; Theophrastus. and Hort 1916). Saffron is infused in oil and both cardamom and black cardamom in water, in order to extract the aroma. Some resins and roots require extraction with alcohol, in this case the 14.5% resin-infused white wine. The whole process is carried at room temperature (RT) unless indicated otherwise. During the gentle heating in double-boiler process, the flask remain open to allow for aroma testing. When one substance seems to dominate, other ingredients are added to balance the notes. It is especially important for complex perfumes, with multiple ingredients added.


Making the Etruscan ointment


The experimental work was the most enjoyable part of this project. The perfumes are made in several steps which are spread over time. The recipes below mirror this extended processing time.


 Ointment from Chiusi (Tuscany, Italy):

Day 1

  1. 7 g mastic resin, 3.5 g spruce resin and 3.5 g pine resin soaked in 50 mL Retsina Kourtoki wine overnight at room temperature.

Day 2

  1. add 25 mL moringa oil added to the aromatics soaking in wine and the mixture was heated in bain-marie for 2 hours,
  2. after heating was finished, 3 g spruce and 3 g pine resin was added to the aromatics mix and let steep overnight.

Day 3

  1. the resin mix was heated in bain-marie for 2 hours.

Day 4

  1. 4 g mastic resin, 10 g pine resin, 4 g spruce resin and 10 mL moringa oil were added to the mix and heated for 2 hours in bain-marie.

Day 5

  1. the aromatics mixture was filtered through one layer of dense linen cloth and stored in glass bottle (Fig.7).


fig 7.jpg

Fig.7. Different steps in making the perfumes. Filtering the Etruscan ointment through linen cloth.


The total yield of the ointment is approximately 80 mL. This mixture is quite dense and semi-liquid and needs to be well mixed before trying it. The final scent seems to come from the mastic resin, but according to Theophrastus, we need to wait much longer for the full scent to develop (Theophrastus. and Hort 1916).

The Etruscan ointment was discovered in a spindle-shaped pottery container and I was lucky to find a matching replica (Fig.8B). This kind of bottle is not particularly well designed to stand so a special support may have been used in antiquity  (Dayagi-Mendeles and Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem) 1993).


fig 8.jpgFig.8. Roman pottery unguentaria. A, Approximate chronology of ceramic unguentaria present in Milwaukee Public Museum collection (Mortensen 2014) and B, the replica that forms the part of the display. Because it is unglazed inside, it would have been covered with beeswax before actual use.


Final thoughts

As much as I followed the extant sources, I have introduced some changes into the recipes. The Etruscan ointment was made using two different resins of the pine family, from spruce and pine. My first version prepared with just pine resin was much more flat and the scent did not develop a lot over time. I expect that adding the spruce resin from Portugal will deepen the final scent.




Bodiou, Lydie., Dominique. Frère, Véronique. Mehl, and Impr. Barnéoud). 2008. Parfums et Odeurs Dans l’Antiquité. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes. https://www.worldcat.org/title/parfums-et-odeurs-dans-lantiquite/oclc/898732599&referer=brief_results.

Brun, Jean-Pierre. 2000. “The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Case of Delos and Paestum.” American Journal of Archaelogy 104 (2): 277–308. http://www.worldcat.org/title/production-of-perfumes-in-antiquity-the-case-of-delos-and-paestum/oclc/900598894&referer=brief_results.

Brun, Jean-Pierre, Xavier Fernandez, and Gabrielle Voinot. 2015. Parfums Antiques: De L’archéologue Au Chimiste : [Exposition, Musée International de La Parfumerie, Grasse, 11 Décembre 2015 – 30 Mars 2016]. Milano; Grasse: Musée international de la parfumerie. https://www.worldcat.org/title/parfums-antiques-de-larcheologue-au-chimiste-exposition-musee-international-de-la-parfumerie-grasse-11-decembre-2015-30-mars-2016/oclc/944271196&referer=brief_results.

Castel, Cecilia, Xavier Fernandez, Jean-Jacques Filippi, and Jean-Pierre Brun. 2009. “Perfumes in Mediterranean Antiquity.” Flavour and Fragrance Journal 24 (6). John Wiley & Sons: 326–34. http://www.worldcat.org/title/perfumes-in-mediterranean-antiquity/oclc/497117827&referer=brief_results.

Colombini, M.P., G. Giachi, M. Iozzo, and E. Ribechini. 2009. “An Etruscan Ointment from Chiusi (Tuscany, Italy): Its Chemical Characterization.” Journal of Archaeological Science 36 (7): 1488–95. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2009.02.011.

Dayagi-Mendeles, Mikhal., and Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem). 1993. Perfumes and Cosmetics in the Ancient World. Jerusalem: Israel Museum. https://www.worldcat.org/title/perfumes-and-cosmetics-in-the-ancient-world/oclc/461487527&referer=brief_results.

Dioscorides Pedanius, of Anazarbos., Tess Anne. Osbaldeston, and Robert P. Wood. 2000. De Materia Medica : Being an Herbal with Many Other Medicinal Materials : Written in Greek in the First Century of the Common Era : A New Indexed Version in Modern English. Johannesburg: IBIDIS. https://www.worldcat.org/title/dioscorides-de-materia-medica-being-an-herbal-with-many-other-medicinal-materials/oclc/59267898&referer=brief_results.

Farmanfarmaian, Fatema Soudavar. 2000. “Haft Qalam Arayish: Cosmetics in the Iranian World.” Iranian Studies 33 (3–4). Taylor & Francis Group: 285–326. doi:10.1080/00210860008701984.

Grami, Bbahram. 2013. “Perfumery Plant Materials As Reflected In Early Persian Poetry.”  Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 23 (1): 39–52. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/1327720117?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo.

Kirk-Othmer. 2012. Kirk-Othmer Chemical Technology of Cosmetics. Wiley. https://www.worldcat.org/title/kirk-othmer-chemical-technology-of-cosmetics/oclc/940707810&referer=brief_results.

Langenheim, Jean H. 2003. Plant Resins : Chemistry, Evolution, Ecology, and Ethnobotany. Portland  Or.: Timber Press. https://www.worldcat.org/title/plant-resins-chemistry-evolution-ecology-and-ethnobotany/oclc/429484328&referer=brief_results.

Mohagheghzadeh, Abdolali, Arman Zargaran, and Saeed Daneshamuz. 2011. “Cosmetic Sciences from Ancient Persia.” Pharmaceutical Historian 41 (2). The Society: 18–23. http://www.worldcat.org/title/cosmetic-sciences-from-ancient-persia/oclc/748843349&referer=brief_results.

Mortensen, Jenna. 2014. “The Implications of Content Analysis for the Interpretation of Unguentaria in Museum Collections.” Theses and Dissertations. http://dc.uwm.edu/etd/506.

Theophrastus., 372-287, and Arthur Hort. 1916. Enquiry into Plants, and Minor Works on Odours and Weather Signs. Volume II. The Loeb C. [Place of publication not identified]: Harvard University Press. https://www.worldcat.org/title/enquiry-into-plants-and-minor-works-on-odours-and-weather-signs-vol-ii/oclc/852018037&referer=brief_results.

Voudouri, Dimitra, and Christine Tesseromatis. 2015. “Perfumery from Myth to Antiquity.” International Journal of Medicine and Pharmacy 3 (2): 41–55. http://www.worldcat.org/title/perfumery-from-myth-to-antiquity/oclc/5994440920&referer=brief_results.





Class on making period cosmetics, taught at SCA event, Border Skirmish, in Elkhorn, WI

I offered the class on making period cosmetics for the first time. I had to to bring nearly a complete still room to the site but I think it was worth. Great thanks to Gail Middleton who let me fill her car with my stuff!

We covered a range of different periods and regions within SCA time-frame since I did not want to overwhelm anyone with just Bei Wei cosmetics. I also had a display of Chinese cosmetics from Bei Wei and containers/tools from other periods. And 2 perfumes of antiquity to test.


A practical survey of period cosmetics
Dúgū Jìnán
Katarzyna (Kasia) Gromek
Email: murcielago53@hotmail.com

For millennia makeup was an important part of the look and status for both men and women. In the modern re-enactment the importance of makeup seems to be mostly lost. Even if makeup is applied, it is made with modern cosmetics. Period cosmetics do not have to be toxic or smelly and the aim of this class is to show the ways of making and applying them. We will travel around the world and through the time. Many of the recipes are suitable for various cultures, with some small adjustments. The period makeup will help to be more in ‘persona.’ Because of time constrains, some of the bases were prepared ahead of time and the detailed recipes are included.
For more on general history of period cosmetics please check Sally Pointer’s book, ‘The artifice of beauty’ (Pointer 2005).

Safety concern:
1. We are going to use safe alternative to some period ingredients. The modern substitutes are considered safe for cosmetic application, but please be careful and do not eat or drink while working with these substances.
2. There is always risk of allergic reaction. I did my best to try to poll for potential allergens but I cannot take responsibility for any adverse reactions.
3. I have zinc oxide as substitute for titanium dioxide. It is a period ingredient though it was used mostly for ‘plasters’ or ointments for skin problems.

Concerning the measurement units:
Throughout this class, I will use the following units of measurement:
flat tbs – tablespoon with contents flatten with edge of a knife
flat tsp – teaspoon with contents flatten with edge of a knife
Flat ¼ tsp – ¼ teaspoon with contents flatten with edge of a knife (used for measuring pigments and dyes)
full tsb – rounded tablespoon
full tsp – rounded teaspoon
g- gram
mL – milliliter
Both the tablespoon and teaspoon were from a standard measuring spoon set.

Herbs and aromatics were purchased from online stores: https://www.mountainroseherbs.com/, http://www.herbco.com/, http://plumdragonherbs.com/ and http://www.activeherb.com/.
Some pigments and dyes were acquired from http://www.naturalearthpaint.com/ and various eBay and Etsy sellers. Plant oils and animal fat were bought in local Madison stores.


1. Roman period white base/ointment based on extant sample excavated in London (Evershed et al. 2004)

Base A (according to the original data, the fat was probably unscented but I like aromatics and extended shelf life):
– aromatics steeped in 50 mL semi-dry white wine at room temperature for 72 hours: 2 full tsp frankincense resin (crushed), 2 full tsp cinnamon chips, 2 full tsp cassia twigs, 2 tsp hyssop, 1 tbs crushed vetiver root, 1 tsp ground cardamom, 1 tsp ground nutmeg, 1 flat tsp calamus root, a pinch of galbanum resin)
– 125 g beef suet
Filter the aromatics through a piece of cloth and save the wine. Add the aromatized wine to the melted beef suet and heat in a double boiler until all water evaporates (no longer boils). Store in an air-tight container, preferably in a cool, dark place.

White ointment:
1.5 g tin oxide (IV)
4.25 g fat base
4.25 g wheat starch
Mix until smooth consistency is achieved.

Base B (better for oily skin)
20 g lanolin
25 ml olive oil
25 ml white semi-dry wine
2 g salt
1 g myrrh resin
1 g frankincense resin
1.5 g pine resin
Heat in a double boiler until all water evaporates (no longer boils). Filter through a piece of cloth and add 5 drop spikenard EO, 2 drops labdanum EO and 5 drops cedar wood EO and mix. Store in an air-tight container, preferably in a cool, dark place.

White ointment made with Base B:
1.5 g tin oxide (IV)
4.25 g wheat starch
Add warmed base using spoon and mix until smooth consistency is achieved.
2. The eyebrow paint (Asia, late antiquity-early medieval period)
Since galena paint is only part of a display, we are going to make another version using powdered graphite (a period solution) laced with golden mica for some sparkle (Rapp 2009). It looks very similar to the toxic version.

2. The beeswax and sesame oil base for thick paste ointment (Jia 1974)

-aromatics steeped in 120 mL yellow rice wine (huangjiu) at room temperature for 72 hours: 2 full tsp frankincense resin (crushed), 2 full tsp myrrh resin (crushed)
– 135 mL sesame oil
– 45 g beeswax
Filter the aromatics through a thick cloth and save the aromatized wine. Add the wine to the sesame oil and simmer in a double boiler until the water is gone. Then add the beeswax and let 27
it melt. Remove from the source of heat and mix until a uniform dense paste forms. Store in an air-tight container, preferably in a cool, dark place.

‘False galena’
2 x ¼ flat tsp beeswax/sesame oil base
1 x ¼ flat tsp powdered graphite
half x ¼ flat tsp crushed golden mica
2 x ¼ flat tsp wheat starch
1 x ¼ flat tsp bone ash
After careful mixing, the thick paste is probably the closest approximation of period cosmetic. The lamp back (soot) and bone black versions are really black so they have to be whiten with modern lead white substitute to make them more greyish.

Recipe for ‘lapis lazuli’ or ‘malachite’ eye paint
3 x ¼ flat tsp beeswax/sesame oil base
1 x ¼ flat tsp blue earth or green earth
1 x ¼ flat tsp millet flower or 2 x ¼ flat tsp wheat starch
1 x ¼ flat tsp bone ash
Mix well. If needed adjust consistency until thick paste forms. These colored pastes can be also used as eyeshadow paint. If red ochre is used as pigment, it can be made into lip paint.

3. Caterina Sforza whitening ointment (late 15th century Italy)

‘To cure redness of the face:
Take white lead [ceruse], rose water and violet oil and mix together and anoint the face.\

A guarire la Roseza del Volto
Piglia Cerusa aqua rosa oleo de viole et mestica inseme et ugne la faccia.’
(Accessed June 7th 2017 https://sites.eca.ed.ac.uk/renaissancecosmetics/cosmetics-recipes/skin/)

Traditional titanium dioxide base recipe
3 g titanium dioxide
2 g wheat starch
Add rosewater using pipette until smooth thick liquid forms. Scent with 1 drop absolute violet leaf EO.

Alternative titanium dioxide base recipe
2 g mix (made by mixing 15 g titanium dioxide, 7.5 g titanium dioxide micronized and 7.5 g mica micronized)
1 g wheat starch
10 drops almond oil
Add rosewater using pipette until smooth thick liquid forms. Scent with 1 drop absolute violet leaf EO.

4. Alkanet lip paint (Roman, Greek, Byzantine) (Kelly Olson 2009)

Alkanet dye extraction (soluble in oil and ethanol)
3 g alkanet powder
25 ml safflower oil
Mix both ingredients well and keep in a tightly closed container at room temperature for at least 24 hours. Filter through cloth or paper filter and store in a cool, dark place.

The lip paint
3 ml warmed and melted beeswax
Add the alkanet dye in oil to the melted beeswax until the desired color is achieved. Micronized mica or wheat starch can be added to make the paste smoother.

5. Trotula rouge (11-12th century Salerno. Italy) (Green 2002)

‘Take shaving of brazilwood and let it be placed in an eggshell containing a little rose water, and let it be placed in the same place a little alum, and with this let her anoint some cotton and press it on her face and it should make her red.’

Dye extraction
2 x ¼ full tsp brazilwood (sappan wood)
8 mL rose water
Add alum by pinch until the rose water is saturated with the color. Filter the dyed rose water.
To use, immerse cotton or linen fabric scrap and spread the color over the cheeks.
Alternatively the dyes can be used to make a powder rouge by adding starch or gypsum and getting it dyed.


Evershed, R.P. et al., 2004. Archaeology: Formulation of a Roman cosmetic. Nature, 432(7013), pp.35–36. Available at: http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/432035a [Accessed June 10, 2017].

Green, M.H., 2002. The Trotula : an English translation of the medieval compendium of women’s medicine, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Jia, Sixie, and Shenghan Shi. 1974. A Preliminary Survey of the Book Ch’i Min Yao Shu: An Agricultural Encyclopaedia of the 6th Century = Qimin Yaoshu Gailun. 2nd ed. Peking: Science Press.
Kelly Olson, 2009. Cosmetics in Roman Antiquity: Substance, Remedy, Poison. Classical World, 102(3), pp.291–310.
Pointer, S., 2005. The artifice of beauty: a history and practical guide to perfumes and cosmetics, Stroud: Sutton.
Rapp, G.R., 2009. Archaeomineralogy 2nd ed., Berlin: Springer.


‘Yellow aura across the forehead was uncommonly auspicious’ or The court makeup from the state of Běi Wèi 北魏 (Northern Wei) in Northern China, 5-6th century CE

For a recent Northshield A&S competition I decided to make period color cosmetics and do the makeover in front of judges. I have re-discovered the passion for working with herbs and other ingredients that I enjoyed so much during my high school times.
Based on the preserved artwork, extant cosmetic samples, manuals, and poetry, I plan to recreate the period cosmetics used for the court face makeup in Northern Wei in the 5-6th century CE. The archaeology of Northern Wei is considerably new and we do not have the full knowledge of the culture of the Xianbei people. As there are many gaps, I also use sources that predate the Wei state (Warring States and Han Dynasty, 5th century BCE to 2nd century CE) or are slightly post-date but mention the descent from earlier times (Sui Dynasty and early Tang Dynasty (6th to 7th century CE). Recipes used for making the cosmetics were followed as closely as possible. In case of toxic substances, I made the original ones as a part of display only and to have a reference for matching safer replacements. My recipes are included in the main part of this work while the description of plant ingredients and the recipes for ointment bases are included in the appendix section.
The cosmetics made within the scope of this entry include:
-the Hu powder or the white makeup base (hufen),
-the yellow forehead paint (e’huang),
-the eyebrow paint (daimei),
-the rouge (yanzhi),
-the lip oil (chunzhi),
-the decoration for the forehead (huadian) and cheeks (mianye).
The simplified diagram of the complete makeup is shown below:

face diagram
The cosmetics are presented in a historically accurate style, including the toilet box, containers, applicators and accessories. The application process, performed on my face, will be also part of this presentation.
This entry is a part of an ongoing major project, dedicated to the complete beauty regimen of women of Northern Wei. The lessons learnt from making color makeup will definitively help in the part dedicated to skin care.



Bias cut edging dated to the Liao Dynasty

This is an example of the bias cut edging used to finish the  side wings of a headdress dated to 1000-1163 (Liao Dynasty founded by the Khitans). The edging is made of blue silk gauze cut on bias and  attached around the curved sides of the wings. So far this is the first example for the use of bias tape of sort within SCA timeline.


All images were published in the catalog of Liao Dynasty items in the collection of the Abegg-Stiftung in  Riggisberg, Switzerland.

Schorta, R., Viràg, C. von., & Abegg-Stiftung. (2007). Dragons of silk, flowers of gold : a group of Liao-dynasty textiles at the Abegg-Stiftung. Riggisberg [Switzerland]: Abegg-Stiftung.

Finding my place within SCA

13613382_1787678988118238_2242611149200719701_o.jpg web.jpg

I went to my first archery practice  hosted by local  SCA group (Society for Creative Anachronism) in October 2012. It was difficult time for me  and I needed a new kind of  entertainment to keep me going in daily life. Archery seemed like a great choice. I was lucky that the archers of Jararvellir are so welcoming to a new person. Yes, I have heard stories about new people who are constantly ignored, pushed away and finally quit and never return. Archery was the starting point. I know I will never excel at it, but I can still enjoy it.

I came to SCA  having a specific persona in mind. Alessandra Salviati Crespelle, a woman living in the early 16th century Florence. Pretty  sottana (dress) was what I wanted. I loved to dress up when I was a kid and this love has stayed with me. I have never before sewn anything for a human, I only dressed my dolls. Looks like I need challenges in my life and within  two years, I have became an owner of  beautiful dresses, custom tailored to my figure and entirely hand sewn (thanks to my Mother’s dedicated work on the long seams). My sewing machine seems to be used mostly as serger  for finishing ends of new fabric before washing. My love for the voluminous dresses was abruptly ended when I went to my first outdoor event, Warriors and Warlords, held in Boscobel, Wisconsin, in 2013. The whole area was drenched for few days with heavy rain and by the time I  arrived at the archery camp,  my skirts were wet and in mud till my knees. It was not getting better with high humidity and heat and my felt-lined bodice nearly suffocated me before the noon. And forget about archery in this kind of dress, it is perfect for a court and not for outdoor activities.

I have learnt from my mistakes and decided to create an alternate persona for summer so I can enjoy events and not suffer all the time. I was not aware that the 600 CE cut off date for SCA start time was no longer in use  (I was considering ancient Greek or Roman persona) and so I settled on the early Kingdom of Italy (or the Kingdom of the Langobards). When I was in college, I read a book on the forgotten nations of Europe and somehow the  Langobards came to my mind. Perfect topic for research as nothing is known about the female costume of the early 7th century CE. I could be a barbarian and at the same time copy all the Byzantine  high fashion. And so my alternate persona came to life – Grisiltruda Fortunata, a daughter of a Langobard warrior and Roman woman. I enjoy researching the early Langobard  life in Italy and I think that my research on the costume has really resulted in a spectacular outfits.

I would not be myself  though if I do not take more routes to explore. I love Chinese costume movies  so I made a Tang Dynasty  hufu (‘foreign clothes’)  outfit for the archery activities. Yes, it is perfect for outdoors. It is perfect for archery. What I did not know in 2013 was that Tang China was not to be my exotic place to have another persona. Studying the Langobards  history before the invasion of Italy, I learned about the Avars who pushed Langobards from Pannonia (modern day Hungary). Who were the Avars? Well, some historians identify them with the Rourans who were forced away from the northern  Asian steppes by the warriors of Northern Wei. Now I know that it is not so certain but Northern Wei came to my attention. An empire that lasted less than 200 years but was the setting point for the glory of Tang Dynasty. Yes, all the best of Tang China, from pipa music, the fashion and make up, from  the considerable freedom of women to the taste for exotica of all kind  were inherited from the Northern Wei culture. The Xianbei  nomads, as they were called by the Han Chinese, created an empire that combined the civilized way of living and the nomads’ love for freedom.

In 2016 I made the final decision to change my primary SCA persona to the Northern Wei one. It may be a fight to get the new name formally registered but I am convinced I have enough evidence to justify the choice of name. Dúgū Jǐnán (獨孤 濟南) seems to fit me perfectly. It may have been a premonition that when I went to test out horsebows for sale in 2013, the only bow that I liked was an asymmetric  Hunnish one. Similar bows were used by the Xianbei. So I can say that my bow purchase was a perfect choice for a persona that I came up with years later. And I am really lucky that the graduate students in Asian studies run out of popular topics and have started solid research on the steppe nomads. Plenty of material to look at and enjoy. And I can make side trips to Korea’s kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla in search of extra information on Xianbei (yes, the enemies were always well informed).

I have finally found my place in SCA. I can enjoy digging into the daily life and customs of not very well known nations and have a lot of satisfaction along the way. I need a place to gather my research  and eventually have a way to share it  so I have decided to start a blog. A blog dedicated to all things Xianbei and Langobards.