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The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology

The Body Beautiful

What did ancient people look like? The pots in this museum give us an idea. Texts and other objects - makeup, equipment and jewellery - support this evidence. Most of these objects were found in graves. In death, as in life, the Greeks and Egyptians wanted their hair, face and body to look good. Why? Greek texts suggest that beautiful people were good people.


Fashions in hairstyles changed, but they usually said something about your role in society. How you wore your hair might depend on your age, gender and wealth. Our bronze statuette of Horus shows him with a plaited sidelock that tells us he is a child here. In Classical Greece slave women had to wear their hair short but other women wore their hair long. If you had a complicated hairstyle people would think it was done by slaves. Hair ornaments - combs, rings and pins - also gave an impression of wealth.


Women and men in antiquity impressed people with their clothes, jewellery and hair. Men were also judged by their skin, which they showed in warfare and athletics. Many containers - alabastra, lekythoi , and aryballoi (e.g.[ 11.10.5 ]) - contained oil that protected their skin from the sun and the wind. By scraping oil off with strigils they would also remove dirt. Scientists have discovered traces of perfume in the bottom of these pots, which suggest that they might have worked as deodorants. Both Greeks and Egyptians used natural oils - from olives, palm and rose, among others - and fats to perfume, protect and preserve their bodies.


In the ancient world makeup was made by hand using natural materials - animals, plants and minerals. Egyptians ground lead, soot and oil into a black powder called kohl on stone palettes. The kohl was stored in small jars and then applied to eyes using sticks. The kohl protected them from the sun and also emphasised their shape. The white faces of women found in Greek and Egyptian art suggest that pale skin was an ideal. Only rich women could afford to stay out of the sun. Texts and residues in the pots tell that women whitened their skin with lead powder, chalk or crocodile dung. When the makeup was done, one could check it in a polished metal surface that mirrored or reflected reality. Death was also seen as a reflection (of life) so polished metal mirrors are found in Greek and Egyptian graves, where they are symbols of or gateways to the afterlife.

For more on men and women see also our section on Gender in the Ancient Greek World.

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File last modified: 31 Jul 2012