Beauty Is Pain: A New Look at the Toiletry Kits from Ur

April 30, 2015

Toiletry kits have been found around the ancient world from the Indus Valley to Britain, and range in time from the 3rd millennium BCE to the modern day, albeit in varied forms.  Nearly every publication that mentions these artifacts acknowledges that we do not know how they were used, but most interpret them as dealing with the application of cosmetics.  The kits found at Ur are usually made of copper, with a conical case (or reticule as Leonard Woolley and our website—www.ur-online.org—call them) containing three or four tools on a wire ring.  They are typically corroded within the case with only their heads visible. Because it is difficult or even impossible to separate them after thousands of years, we must look for individual tools found separately from their cases in order to analyze the different instruments.  The instruments themselves are secured by a ring formed by a piece of wire, so even if they do not have cases, they are grouped together.  At the site of Kish, located upriver from Ur, and containing burials dating to the Early Dynastic Period (ca. 2750-2600 BCE), excavators have found both kits with and without cases.  The kits that contain three instruments tend to have an ear scoop, a pointed tool (or stiletto as Leonard Woolley and our website call them), and a pair of tweezers, whereas the kits that contain four instruments tend to include a small blade as well (Torres-Rouff et al. 2012).  There appears to be no way to prevent the instruments from falling out of the case, beyond jamming them in very tightly.

Picture:  30-12-346 showing ear scoop, needles and points.  35-1-508 showing four instruments, tweezers, point, and knife blade apparent.  35-1-506 showing three instruments in a knobbed conical case.
Picture: 30-12-346 showing ear scoop, needles, and points. 35-1-508 showing four instruments, tweezers, point, and knife blade apparent. 35-1-506 showing three instruments in a knobbed conical case.

The toiletry cases  at Kish are recorded as being decorated, while the ones found at Ur that are housed in the Penn Museum do not seem to be decorated.  Two have pseudomorphs of bands, possibly leather, which are indications of ancient belt attachments (See January’s Ur Blog for more on Pseudomorphs).  At Kish, these objects were found in burials and were located near the waist of the skeletons.  Of the 98 recorded toiletry kits at Ur, 87 were found in graves, but where they were found in relation to the bodies was typically not recorded.

At Kish, toiletry cases were found in eleven of the 162 burials.  Previous studies, however brief, have usually correlated these objects with garment pins, and hence as part of women’s funerary kits.  However, the analysis at Kish shows that only two women were buried with toiletry kits, whereas twelve men were buried with them (Torres-Rouff et al. 2012).  These statistics may be biased due to a small sampling size and possible incorrect sexing of some skeletons; however, it seems that more kits are found with men than women.  In the future, we hope our website (www.ur-online.org) will make it easier for these types of studies to be performed as well as for more statistical analysis of possible funerary assemblages of the people.

Three different functions are put forth in the interpretation of the toiletry kits.

First is cosmetic.  This is the most common type of interpretation, where these tools were used to modify the body by applying a make-up of some type.  The pointed tool could be used to apply kohl to the eyelids, or add a rouge to the lips.  The ear scoop could be used not only to remove the wax from one’s ear, but also to swipe mineral components onto the eyelid.  Tweezers could be used to remove unwanted hair, usually stated to be used for shaping eyebrows.

Second is hygienic.  In this instance, the tools are interpreted as being used for things like removing thorns from the skin.  The knife could be used to open the wound. The point and/or ear scoop could be used to press between the thorn and raise it, and the tweezers to extract it.  Or they could be used for cleaning and clipping the nails. The ear scoop could be used for pushing back the cuticles at the base of the nail.  The knife could be used for trimming the nails.  Lastly, tweezers could be used for cleaning under the nails or pushing back the cuticles.

Third is medical.  Wendy Morrison (2013) interprets Roman toiletry kits as being used to care for painful eye infections.  She was inspired to look into this function for these kits after seeing a picture of a woman in Kenya with trachoma who was wearing a pair of tweezers around her neck.  Trachoma is caused by living near fly-ridden refuse heaps and in smoky or dusty habitations, and her research has shown this disease existed in the past.  Roman books record it as well as its treatments.  The disease starts by turning the eyelid inside out, and causes hard sores on the inside of the eyes. If left untreated, it can cause blindness.  In looking at the toiletry kits from Roman Britain (which are quite similar to the kits found at Ur), Morrison has shown that tweezers could be used for plucking eyelashes to alleviate pain when the eyelid starts to turn inside out.  The pointed tool could be used to scrape off the hardened sores in order for them to heal.  The ear scoop could also be used to scrape off the hardened sores, but also could be used to apply a medicine to the eye and eyelid.  Roman texts record some recipes for these medicines, and the ways in which they were applied (Morrison 2013).

It has been said that beauty is pain, and the toiletry kits from Ur might represent either or both.  They could be tools for beautification or the treatment of illness.  They have been analyzed as objects that display personal identity and gender, especially in funerary contexts.  No matter how we interpret them, they are fascinating artifacts that deserve more attention.

Examples for toiletry kits found on the internet: 1) 1-200AD, Rhineland, Roman Athlete’s kit 2) 400-700 AD, Oxfordshire, Anglo-Saxon toiletry kit  3) 800-1169AD, Ireland, Model of a Viking toiletry set 4) Our modern day version of a similar kit
Examples for toiletry kits found on the internet: 1) 1-200 CE, Rhineland, Roman Athlete’s kit; 2) 400-700 CE, Oxfordshire, Anglo-Saxon toiletry kit; 3) 800-1169 CE, Ireland, model of a Viking toiletry set; and 4) our modern-day version of a similar kit.

Morrison, Wendy. 2013. A Fresh Eye on Familiar Objects: Rethinking Toiletry Sets in Roman Britain.  Oxford Journal of Archaeology 32(2):221-230.

Torres-Rouff, C., W. Pestle, and B. Daverman. 2012. Commemorating Bodies and Lives at Kish’s “A Cemetery”: (Re)presenting Social Memory.  Journal of Social Archaeology  12(2):193-219.