Scallop used as Roman makeup case

A team of archaeologists has analyzed the contents of a scallop shell found in a 1st c. A.D. grave and found traces of makeup. The scallop shell was discovered in 2000 at an excavation in Mérida, the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania which was founded in 25 B.C. as the veteran colony of Augusta Emerita. The dig unearthed several funerary structures, cremations and inhumations at a site that in Roman times would have been outside the city’s northeast gate on the road to Colonia Metellinensis (modern-day Medellín).

Six burials were excavated. One of them was a rectangular pit dug out of the rock in which the remains of an individual were cremated. Within the pit archaeologists found fill generated by the combustion of the funerary pyre — cremated bone, charcoal and fragments of ceramics, iron nails and tacks from the funeral bed. On top of this layer were grave goods, placed around the perimeter of the pit after the fire had gone out, including two ceramic vessels of local manufacture dating to the second half of the 1st century, a fine blue glass vase with muscle shell decoration, four small glass unguentaria and a complete Pecten maximus shell, its two halves sealed by a hinge.

About 4 inches long and wide, both halves of the shell were in good condition. Two holes were pierced through the flat side with matching ones on the convex side. A metallic wire would have been run through them and tied together to keep the shells closed and protect the contents. Inside the scallop was soil that had filled the cinerary pit, a fragment of silver thread and a small oblong ball of bright pink hue distinct against the brown earth.

That pink ball indicated the scallop shell had been transformed into a pyxis, the ancient Greek name for a vessel,  typically cylindrical in shape, used to hold cosmetics. Thus researchers have dubbed it a “bivalve malacological pyxis,” which has now vaulted into the top bracket of my favorite phrases of all time. (In related how-did-I-live-this-long-before-hearing-this news, the two sides of a scallop shell are called valves, hence “bivalves.”)

Shells were strongly associated with women going back to prehistory, the shell serving as a metaphor for female sex organ, a metaphor still in active use in numerous languages. There are examples of shells being used to hold cosmetics going back to 2500 B.C. Ur, and the trend continued in the Roman era, with seashells and shell-shaped cosmetic boxes made of amber, bone, glass or precious metals found at sites in Italy and Spain.

Using a combination of X-ray diffraction (XRD),  electron microscopy and chromatographic analysis, researchers detected no dyes or mineral pigments (red ocher, vermillion), nor was any mineral substrate in which a dye could have been fixed. It was largely composed of granite lacquer mixed with Rubia tinctorum pigment, color derived from the rose madder plant, and fixed with cold alum. This is an unusual recipe for Roman maquillage, and produces a shade that is much more pink than the orangey-red shades seen in mineral pigments.

7 thoughts on “Scallop used as Roman makeup case

  1. OK, I may be not a native speaker, but we usually refer to ‘bivalve pyxides‘ (the plural of pyxis) as shells, and in Belgium people tend to have those bivalve pyxides with beer and freedom fries 😉

    To call a city “Emerita” (i.e. unless you and your team just have flattened it down) seems a bit odd, but as indicated in the post, it refers to the Roman military veterans.

    Mérida intentionally leaves out the “e”, but for “malacological” -in all fairness- I simply have no explanation. Moreover, is it even possible to do “Malacology”, when e.g. in Barcelona and not at all in ..Málaga?

    PS: “Pyxis”, by the way, today lives on in e.g. “Büchse”, i.e. “box” in English.
    PPS: Confusingly, a portable box for cosmetics is a vanity case.

  2. First time commenting; love your work!

    As nearly as I can tell, the English identity of the compound is misleading. I believe “granite lacquer” is a mistranslation of “laca de granza.” Laca de Granza is Spanish for madder lake, i.e., the pigment you get when you precipitate a madder (Rubia tinctorium) dyebath using alum.

  3. Indeed, ‘granza’ is turned into ‘granite’ here, but so far I am ‘not concretely’ sure of why :confused:

    “..En relación al cosmético contenido, se decidió enviar parte para su análisis y se ha podido definir que estamos ante una pequeña bolita rosácea compuesta por laca de granza, “rose madder” obtenida a partir del uso del alumbre frio como fijador.”

    “..In relation to the cosmetic content, it was decided to send part of it for analysis and it has been possible to define that we are dealing with a small pinkish ball made up of granite lacquer, “rose madder” obtained from the use of cold alum as a fixative.”

    From Old French garance, warance, from Frankish *wratja, from Proto-Germanic *wratjō (“red dye”), in Anglo-Saxon “wrǽt”. Apparently, the name for Rubia tinctorum in French is ‘garance’ (garança in Portuguese), while there seems to be a whopping 28(!) ‘nombres comúnes‘ for the same stuff:

    azotalenguas, enredadera, enroya, garanza, granza, lapa, la raspa, raspa, raspalengua, raspa-lengua, raspilla, roja, roya, royuela, rubea, rúbea, rubia, rubia de los tintoreros, rubia de tintes, rubia de tintoreros, rubia granza, rubia mayor, rubia montesina, rubia que se planta y labra, rubia silvestre, sangralengua, sangra-lengua, tinta roja.

  4. It’s very easy to make, as I discovered to my chagrin the third time I tried madder dyeing.

    Lake pigments can be made from several of the standard western European organic dyes; there are many extant recipes in late Classical and medieval/Renaissance manuscripts.

  5. This is so incredibly interesting, not just for the shell but for the pigment – you’re right in that it’s rare to come across bright pink pigment like that in ancient formulas! Fascinating.

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