Jar Of 2,700-Year-Old Facial Cream Found In A Chinese Nobleman’s Tomb

Archaeologists who opened and searched the 2,700-year-old tomb of a buried nobleman at the Liujiawa site in northern China found something unusual . In among the long-deceased nobleman’s ample collection of funeral goods, they discovered a crusted, ornamented bronze jar that contained a soft yellowish substance that was eventually identified as facial cream. Jars of facial cream have been unearthed before inside the tombs of ancient Chinese aristocrats and other individuals of high birth. But most of these samples were found in burial spots reserved for women.

There are far fewer instances where jars of cosmetics have been found entombed alongside men of noble birth, and among this rare group the discovery at Liujiawa dates back the farthest.

The nobleman at Liujiawa was buried sometime during the so-called “Spring and Autumn” period (771-476 BC) in Chinese history, when the city of Liujiawa was the capital of Rui, an Eastern Zhou dynasty vassal state in northern China.

The bronze jar and the facial cream inside it, found in a 2,700-year-old nobleman’s grave in Liujiawa, China. (Han et al. / Archaeometry)

The bronze jar and the facial cream inside it, found in a 2,700-year-old nobleman’s grave in Liujiawa, China. (Han et al. / Archaeometry)

To put the antiquity of this discovery in context, up to now the oldest sample of cosmetics found inside the tomb of a Chinese man could be traced back to the Three Kingdom period, which lasted from 220 to 280 AD. This means the cosmetic jar found at Liujiawa would have been manufactured sometime between 700 and 1,000 years earlier, which indicates the long history of facial cosmetics being used by ancient Chinese men of exalted status.

The Liujiawan nobleman’s tomb and the location of the bronze jar of facial cream marked in red. (Han et al. / Archaeometry)

The Liujiawan nobleman’s tomb and the location of the bronze jar of facial cream marked in red. ( Han et al. / Archaeometry)

Facial Cream And The Earliest Chinese Cosmetics Industry

Despite the fairly unusual nature of the discovery, the archaeologists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences responsible for the excavations at Liujiawa suspected immediately that what they’d found in the bronze jar was facial cream . Later chemical analysis confirmed their suspicions.

“The residue, made of ruminant adipose fat mixed with monohydrocalcite coming from cave moonmilk, was likely used as cosmetic face cream by the nobleman of ancient Rui State,” the archaeologists wrote in their article describing their discovery in the journal Archaeometry.

Moonmilk, which was one ingredient in the ancient facial crème, is derived from cave mineral formations like this one. (Doronenko / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The ruminant adipose fat would have likely been harvested from cattle raised for beef consumption. The “ cave moonmilk ” referred to is a white, creamy substance composed of crystal carbonates (like monohydrocalcite) that collect on the roof of limestone or dolomite caves . This substance turns into a dry powder after being scraped off cave roofs. Cosmetics that contain moonmilk retain their striking white color after they are applied to someone’s face.

“This work provides an early example of cosmetic production in China and, together with the prevalence of similar cosmetic containers during this period, suggests the rise of an incipient cosmetics industry,” the archaeologists explained.

It’s possible that facial cream was used in ancient China for aesthetic purposes, or as a way to signal someone’s important or unique status. But the Chinese archaeologists have a different idea. They believe the use of moonmilk for facial applications establishes a link between cosmetic manufacturers and users in first millennium BC China and the practices and beliefs of the early Taoist school. Adherents to the nascent Taoist philosophy apparently believed that cave moonmilk possessed magical, life-transforming properties, derived from the minerals from which they were made.

The bronze jar in which the 2,700-year-old facial cream was found. (Han et al. / Archaeometry)

The bronze jar in which the 2,700-year-old facial cream was found. ( Han et al. / Archaeometry)

The Influence Of Early Taoism On Ancient Chinese Practices

At the time of the nobleman’s death, China’s feudal system was beginning to show serious signs of strain. Indeed, the Spring and Autumn period would be followed by the “Warring States” period, which points to an emerging political crisis bubbling just beneath the surface.

During the Spring and Autumn period, Rui was still a vassal state of the Zhou dynasty , which ruled China for more than 900 years. It is impossible to know for sure how subservient the aristocratic classes may have been in Liujiawa, when the nobleman buried with the facial cream lived, so there is no way to tell if this particular individual was loyal to the Zhou Dynasty or among those who may have been secretly plotting rebellion.

If, however, his use of facial cream made from cave moonmilk did demonstrate an interest in early Taoist philosophy, it would suggest this person was interested in more than just material wealth and privilege. If this is the case, his transcendent concerns might have made him less subservient to distant political masters than his exalted status might imply.

These are just a few of the valuable artifacts excavated from the Liujiawa site in 2018 (Xinhuanet)

These are just a few of the valuable artifacts excavated from the Liujiawa site in 2018 ( Xinhuanet)

Revealing The Face Of The Past At Liujiawa

The area around Liujiawa has proven to be fertile ground for Chinese archaeologists. Hundreds of burials have been found there, including many large tombs filled with significant quantities of valuable artifacts made from gold and other valuable materials.

While the recently discovered tomb is the first to produce a jar of facial cream buried alongside a male inhabitant, it may not be the last. Other burials may be discovered that duplicate this find, as excavations at this productive archaeological site continue in the years ahead.

If the Chinese archaeologists are correct in their assertion that their discovery indicates “the rise of an incipient cosmetics industry” during the Spring and Autumn period, similar finds should probably be expected.

Top image: The facial cream found in a 2,700-year-old nobleman’s grave in Liujiawa, China.                     Source: Han et al. / Archaeometry

By Nathan Falde

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