Roman “pendants” turn out to be makeup tools

Three artifacts for years classified as lunate (crescent moon-shaped) pendants have now been identified as Roman makeup tools. The copper alloy objects were discovered in Wroxeter, Shropshire, in the 1910s and 1920s (these finds were not documented and no further details are known about the time and location of the discovery), in an excavation of the site of Viriconium Cornoviorum, modern-day Wroxeter.

At its peak, Viriconium was Britain’s fourth largest city in Roman times with a population of more than 15,000. It was abandoned in the 7th century and the small village today of Wroxeter grew up around the parish church in the Middle Ages. Roman remains were discovered in 1859 and the site became one of England’s first archaeological parks. Today visitors can explore extensive remains of the public baths and the basilica (the last includes the largest piece of free-standing Roman wall in the country), as well as a reconstructed town house and a museum showcasing the daily lives of people in a bustling Roman town with associated legionary fortress.

English Heritage curator Cameron Moffett discovered the objects’ mistaken identification while cataloguing artifacts in the collection of the Wroxeter Roman City museum. Moffett recognized them as tools used to make and apply cosmetics. A distinctive eye-shaped scoop with a piece that fits inside it is what distinguished them. It’s a mini-mortar and pestle, basically. The lower part was used to hold charcoal, ash, a dark powder of some sort. A drop of oil was added and the two mixed together with the top piece to create a paste. That was then applied to the eyelid with the pestle. A suspension loop (which is what deceived previous curators into thinking they were pendants) was attached to make it easily portable.

This particular grinder-applicator type device is unique to Britain. They were locally produced starting in the 1st century, a response to the new influx of cosmetic products from the Mediterranean that accompanied the Roman occupation.

Cameron Moffett, English Heritage Collections Curator, said:

“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 – these small objects literally changed the face of Britain.

“When we think of the Roman period, conversation is often dominated by the masculine realms of influence, from Emperors and politics to battle tactics, but of course women played a key role. It’s these functional, everyday items that really paint a picture of relatable women, to whom make-up was wholly accessible, following the trends of the time and using tools so similar to the ones we use today.”

This is giving me major Janet Stephens vibes, like when she recognized that some Roman hairstyles were likely stitched together rather than pinned based on her experience as a stylist, a thorough examination of the hairstyles on carved busts of prominent Roman women, research into the ancient sources and into the objects found in archaeological beauty kits. Whoever catalogued the Wroxeter artifacts in the 1970s saw the suspension loop and called them pendants, even though the shapes and grinding sets were clearly not the same as other lunate pendants from the Roman period. As Janet Stephens and Cameron Moffett have found, questions of adornment, fashion, women’s beauty routines have often been disregarded as subjects for serious archaeological study, leading to mistakes and faulty assumptions that have gone unexamined for too long.

In more common ground with Janet Stephens, English Heritage has created a YouTube Roman make-up tutorial. The tutorial uses Empress Julia Domna (whose thick waves and intricate curled hairstyles are seen on many a coin has featured on Stephens’ channel as well) as an inspiration and includes a demonstration on how to grind and mix eyeliner using a replica of one the Wroxeter tools.

The video starts with a discussion of general grooming as it would have been practiced by a Roman woman. The model gets strigiled! If loving strigil demos is wrong, I don’t wanna be right. The replica of the mortar and pestle makes its appearance at the 8:15 mark. It really is a nifty little tool. The makeup artists uses it as a stamp to apply the kohl by pressing down firmly rather than spreading. At the 9:40 mark, the host meets with Cameron Moffett who shows her the original tools themselves and discusses their significance as examples of the vast quantities of consumer goods that became available throughout the Roman Empire, even at the far reaches of it.

The video is part of a series of historical cosmetic application tutorials on the English Heritage channel. So far they’ve covered Georgian (male and female), Victorian, Elizabethan and 1930s makeup.