Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ancient Egyptian cosmetics: 'Magical' makeup may have been medicine for eye disease

There's more to the eye makeup that gave Queen Nefertiti and other ancient Egyptian royals those stupendous gazes and legendary beauty than meets the eye. Scientists in France are reporting that the alluring eye makeup also may have been used to help prevent or treat eye disease by doubling as an infection-fighter. Their findings were published in the Jan. 15, 2010 issue of the American Chemical Society (ACS) semi-monthly journal, Analytical Chemistry.

Christian Amatore, Philippe Walter, and colleagues note that thousands of years ago the ancient Egyptians used lead-based substances as cosmetics, including an ingredient in black eye makeup. Some Egyptians believed that this makeup also had a "magical" role in which the ancient gods Horus and Ra would protect wearers against several illnesses. Until now, however, modern scientists largely dismissed that possibility, knowing that lead-based substances can be quite toxic.

In earlier research, the scientists analyzed 52 samples from ancient Egyptian makeup containers preserved in the Louvre museum in Paris. They identified four different lead-based substances in the makeup. In the new study, they found that the substances boosted production of nitric oxide by up to 240 per cent in cultured human skin cells. Modern scientists recognize nitric oxide as a key signalling agent in the body. Its roles include revving-up the immune system to help fight disease. Eye infections caused by bacteria can be a serious problem in tropical marshy areas such as the Nile area during floods, the scientists note. Therefore, the ancient Egyptians may have deliberately used these lead-based cosmetics to help prevent or treat eye disease, the researchers suggest, noting that two of the compounds do not occur naturally and must have been synthesized by ancient Egyptian "chemists."
The full text of their paper is available here. An excerpt follows:

"The present data thus establish that the eyes of Egyptians bearing the black makeup were presumably prone to immediately resist a sudden bacterial contamination with extreme efficiency through the spontaneous action of their own immune cells. Indeed, it is well recognized today that in most tropical marshy areas, such as was the Nile area during floods, several bacterial infections are transmitted to humans following any accidental projection of contaminated water drops into one's eye. These data fully support that Horus' and Ra's protection that ancient Egyptians associated with this makeup and particularly with its laurionite component was real and effective, despite the fact that its "magic" implications seemed a priori totally irreconcilable with our modern scientific views and contrast with our present understanding of the toxicity of lead ions. One cannot evidently go as far as to propose that laurionite was purposely introduced into the composition of the makeup because of any recognized antibacterial properties. Yet, one can presume that ancient Egyptian "chemists" recognized empirically that whenever this "white precipitate" was present in the makeup paste, their bearers were enjoying better health and thus decided to amplify this empirical protective function by specifically manufacturing laurionite. Many examples of such subtle observations and medical conclusions that would have a priori been surprising can be found even in our recent history. It is sufficient, for example, to think about the historical origin of penicillin, aspirin, or quinine. . . Anyway, whether or not the manufacture of these lead chlorides was deliberately connected to preventive health care by Egyptians, it is clear that such intentional production remains the first known example of a large scale chemical process. It is no wonder that "kemej," the Egyptian word that referred to the Egyptian land and to the black earth of the Nile valley, was handed to us via the Greeks and then the Arabs to eventually coin our present 'chemistry'."

Excavations in Jaffa confirm presence of Egyptian settlement on the ancient city site

The Old Testament Studies and Biblical Archaeology division of the Faculty of Protestant Theology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) has conducted excavations on the ancient hill of Jaffa in Israel. The recent excavations have not only shed new light on the destruction of elements of the fortification, but also unearthed evidence pointing towards the presence of an Egyptian population on the site.

Historically, Jaffa, now part of the city of Tel Aviv, is the oldest port documented in world history. Ever since the 2nd millennium B.C., Jaffa has been home to intense trading activity. The remains of a gateway belonging to an Egyptian fortification dating to the dynasty of Ramses II (1279-1213 B.C.) had already been discovered during excavations led by the former municipal archaeologist Y. Kaplan in the 1950s. However, the findings from Kaplan's digs have never been extensively published. The Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project, whose partners include the universities in Mainz and Los Angeles as well as the Israeli Antiquities Authority and the Old Jaffa Development Company, not only aims to publish the findings of these older excavations, but also conduct new digs at sites around the city.

The goal of the excavations was to clarify the history of settlement during the 2nd millennium B.C. by investigating the phases of the fort's destruction and the nature of the Egyptian presence. The German site director Dr. Martin Peilstöcker of JGU explains that it has now become clear that the gate itself was destroyed and rebuilt at least four times. Moreover, it also appears that there is more than just the mud brick architecture and household pottery that reflect Egyptian tradition. In fact, a rare scarab amulet has been found that bears the cartouche of the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1390-1353 B.C.), thus also attesting to the presence of an Egyptian community in the city.

Ancient tomb sheds new light on Egyptian colonialism in Nubia

Skeletal remains suggest conquered Nubians participated in governance of colonized state

IMAGE: New evidence from ancient grave site reveals that Egyptian colonialists shared administrative responsibilities with conquered Nubians.

Click here for more information.
In approximately 1550 B.C., Egypt conquered its southern neighbor, ancient Nubia, and secured control of valuable trade routes. But rather than excluding the colonized people from management of the region, new evidence from an archaeological site on the Nile reveals that Egyptian immigrants shared administrative responsibilities for ruling this large province with native Nubians. "The study of culture contact in the past has conventionally used ideas of unidirectional change and modification of a subordinate population by a socially dominant group. The idea that authoritarian European powers forced changes in submissive native cultures dominated this work," explains Michele R. Buzon (University of Alberta). "However, more recent research has reevaluated these traditional notions and suggests that this model might not be appropriate for all situations of culture contact."
IMAGE: An Egyptian-style burial at Tombos, a cemetery at the third cataract of the Nile in what was once the center of ancient Nubia and is now northern Sudan.

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Through an examination of the archaeological site of Tombos, a strategic point of control in Egyptian-controlled Nubia, Buzon sought to determine whether the people buried in a colonial cemetery were immigrants from Egypt or Nubians who had adopted Egyptian practices. Comparing skull measurements with other revealing features such as tomb architecture, grave objects, and burial position, Buzon founds that the imperial officials who were buried in symbolically-marked tombs were of both Egyptian and Nubian descent. Egyptians were generally laid to rest on their backs in small tombs or pyramids, while Nubians were buried in fetal position on a bed or cow's skin.
"The combination of burial practices found at Tombos suggests that intermarriage between Nubians and Egyptians was likely," Buzon writes. "The results of this study suggest that both local native Nubians and Egyptian immigrants participated in the administration of Nubia during this time."
Michele R. Buzon. "The Relationship between Biological and Ethnic Identity in New Kingdom Nubia: A Case Study from Tombos." Current Anthropology 47:3.

Royal children had the privilege to spend eternal life next to the pharaoh

Close to the royal tombs in the Egyptian Valley of the Kings, excavations by Egyptologists from the University of Basel have identified the burial place of several children as well as other family members of two pharaohs.

Basel Egyptologists of the University of Basel Kings' Valley Project have been working on tomb KV 40 in the Valley of the Kings close to the city of Luxor for three years. From the outside, only a depression in the ground indicated the presence of a subterranean tomb. Up to now, nothing was known about the layout of tomb KV 40 nor for whom it was build and who was buried there.

The Egyptologists assumed that it was a non-royal tomb dating back to the 18th dynasty. They first cleared the six meter deep shaft which gives access to five subterranean chambers and then recovered the countless remains and fragments of funerary equipment.

Mummified royal children 

The scientists discovered mummified remains of at least 50 people in the center chamber and in three side chambers. Based on inscriptions on storage jars, Egyptologists were able to identify and name over 30 people during this year's field season. Titles such as "Prince" and "Princess" distinguish the buried as members of the families of the two pharaohs Thutmosis IV and Amenhotep III who are also buried in the Valley of Kings. Both pharaohs belonged to the 18th dynasty (New Kingdom) and ruled in the 14th century BC.
The analysis of the hieratic inscriptions (related to hieroglyphics) revealed that tomb KV 40 contains the mummified remains of at least 8 hitherto unknown royal daughters, four princes and several foreign ladies. Most of them were adults, however, mummified children were also found: "We discovered a remarkable number of carefully mummified new-borns and infants that would have normally been buried much simpler," describes Egyptologist Prof. Susanne Bickel the findings. "We believe that the family members of the royal court were buried in this tomb for a period of several decades."

The identification of people buried in the proximity of the royal tombs gives the team of researchers important insight into who had the privilege to spend eternal life close to the pharaoh. "Roughly two thirds of the tombs in the Kings' Valley are non-royal. Because the tombs do not have inscriptions and have been heavily plundered we so far have only been able to speculate on who lies buried in them," explains Susanne Bickel in regard to the importance of the findings for the field of Egyptology.

Remains of later burials

Even though the tomb was looted several times in Antiquity as well as at the end of the 19th century, the researchers found countless fragments of funerary equipment, such as fragments of coffins and textiles. "The remains and the walls have been heavily affected by a fire that was most likely ignited by the torches of the tomb raiders," suspects Susanne Bickel. The fragments of various wooden and cartonnage coffins indicate that tomb KV 40 was used a second time as a burial ground: long after the abandonment of the valley as royal necropolis, members of priestly families of the 9th century BC were interred here.

Anthropological analyses as well as further examination on the burial goods will deliver important insight into the composition of the pharaonic court of the 18th dynasty as well as the conditions of life and the burial customs of its members.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ancient Egyptians believed in coiffure after death


Ancient Egyptians wouldn't be caught dead without hair gel. Style in the afterlife was just as important as it was during life on Earth – and coiffure was key.

To this end, men and women alike would have their tresses styled with a fat-based "gel" when they were embalmed. The evidence of their vanity has been found in a community cemetery dating back 3000 years.

Tomb paintings depict people with cone-shaped objects sitting on their heads, thought to be lumps of scented animal fat. "Once we started looking [for these], we found interesting hairstyles," says Natalie McCreesh of the University of Manchester, UK. "The hair was styled and perfectly curled."

She and her colleagues examined hair samples from 15 mummies from the Kellis 1 cemetery in Dakhla oasis, Egypt, and a further three samples from mummies housed in museum collections in the US, the UK and Ireland. The mummies were of both sexes, between 4 and 58 years old when they died, and dated from 3500 years to 2300 years ago.

When examined with light and electron microscopes, it became clear that the hairs of most mummies were coated with a fatty substance, though a few had been coiffed with something resinous...

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Queen Hatshepsut's deadly medication?


Scientists shed light on the dark secret of Queen Hatshepsut's flacon

The corpus delicti is a plain flacon from among the possessions of Pharaoh Hatshepsut, who lived around 1450 B.C., which is on exhibit in the permanent collection of the Egyptian Museum of the University of Bonn. For three and a half millennia, the vessel may have held a deadly secret. This is what the Head of the collection, Michael Höveler-Müller and Dr. Helmut Wiedenfeld from the university's Pharmacology Institute just discovered. After two years of research it is now clear that the flacon did not hold a perfume; instead, it was a kind of skin care lotion or even medication for a monarch suffering from eczema. In addition, the pharmacologists found a strongly carcinogenic substance. Was Hatshepsut killed by her medicine?

When Michael Höveler-Müller became the curator of the Egyptian Museum of the University of Bonn in 2009, it occurred to him to examine the interior of the vessel that, according to an inscription, belonged to Pharaoh Hatshepsut. Its neck had been blocked with what was generally considered "dirt," but Höveler-Müller suspected that it might also be the original clay stopper. So possibly, some of the original contents might still be inside. In Dr. Helmut Wiedenfeld from the Pharmacy Institute, he found just the right partner, to get to the bottom of this question and of the flacon.

At the Radiology Clinic of the Bonn Universitätsklinikum, the flacon was subjected to a CAT scan. Here, the Egyptologist's suspicion was confirmed – not only was the closure intact, but the vessel also held residue of a dried-up liquid. In the summer of 2009, Professor Dr. Friedrich Bootz from the Klinik und Poliklinik für Hals-, Nasen- und Ohrenheilkunde (laryngology, rhinology and otology) of the University of Bonn took samples, using an endoscope.

Too greasy for perfume

This allowed Dr. Wiedenfeld and his team to analyze the old substances for their ingredients. And it became obvious very quickly that what they had found was not dried-up perfume. The mix contained large amounts of palm oil and nutmeg apple oil. "I didn't think anybody would put so much grease on her face," said Dr. Wiedenfeld. "That would make her look as greasy as a plate of ribs." Two additional components clued the pharmacologist in to the actual purpose of the mix, "We found a lot of unsaturated fatty acids that provide relief for people with skin diseases." And this is where the Egyptologist was able to add another piece of the puzzle, "It is indeed known that there were cases of skin disease in Hatshepsut's family." Inflammatory skin diseases such as psoriasis have a largely genetic component.

And the third group of ingredients also points to the fact that this substance was not about providing a nice fragrance, but instead, for fighting a big itch – the pharmacologists found a lot of hydrocarbons derived from creosote and asphalt. To this day, creams containing creosote are used to treat chronic skin diseases. Due to the potentially carcinogenic effects of some of its ingredients, creosote has meanwhile been banned from cosmetics completely, and medications containing creosote are now prescription-only.

What the pharmacologists detected in Hatshepsut's little bottle was in particular benzo(a)pyrene, a hazardous aromatic hydrocarbon consisting of several carbon rings. "Benzo(a)pyrene is one of the most dangerous carcinogenic substances we know," explained Dr. Wiedenfeld. For example, the risk of contracting lung cancer from cigarette smoke results essentially from this substance.

Did the lotion cause the Pharaoh's death from cancer?

Did Hatshepsut maybe poison herself without knowing it? "There is a lot that speaks for this hypothesis," Dr. Wiedenfeld said. "If you imagine that the Queen had a chronic skin disease and that she found short-term improvement from the salve, she may have exposed herself to a great risk over the years." The Egyptologist also thinks that this is very likely. "We have known for a long time that Hatshepsut had cancer and maybe even died from it," said Michael Höveler-Müller. "We may now know the actual cause."

But at this point, the Bonn scientists can only surmise how Hatshepsut obtained her lotion. "Egyptian physicians were general practitioners and good surgeons, but they were lousy internists," explained Dr. Wiedenfeld. "It is quite possible that they owe their knowledge of certain medications to their contacts with Persia and India where the healing arts were very advanced even in Antiquity."

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hatshepsut's Lost Fleet—It's Been Found

The scenes carved into a wall of the ancient Egyptian temple at Deir el-Bahri tell of a remarkable sea voyage. A fleet of cargo ships bearing exotic plants, animals, and precious incense navigates through high-crested waves on a journey from a mysterious land known as Punt or “the Land of God.” The carvings were commissioned by Hatshepsut, ancient Egypt’s greatest female pharaoh, who controlled Egypt for more than two decades in the 15th century B.C. She ruled some 2 million people and oversaw one of most powerful empires of the ancient world.

The exact meaning of the detailed carvings has divided Egyptologists ever since they were discovered in the mid-19th century. “Some people have argued that Punt was inland and not on the sea, or a fictitious place altogether,” 
Oxford Egyptologist John Baines says. Recently, however, a series of remarkable discoveries on a desolate stretch of the Red Sea coast has settled the debate, proving once and for all that the masterful building skills of the ancient Egyptians applied to oceangoing ships as well as to pyramids...

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