How ancient Egypt shaped our idea of beauty

Walking around Beyond Beauty, the new exhibition organised by charitable foundation the Bulldog Trust in the neo-Gothic mansion of Two Temple Place in central London, you would be forgiven for thinking that the ancient Egyptians were insufferably vain.

Many of the 350 exhibits, drawn from the overlooked collections of Britain's regional museums, consist of what we would call beauty products, of one sort or another.

There are dinky combs and handheld mirrors made of copper alloy or, more rarely, silver. There are siltstone palettes, carved to resemble animals, which were used for grinding minerals such as green malachite and kohl for eye makeup.

There are also pale calcite jars and vessels of assorted sizes, in which makeup, as well as unguents and perfumes, could be stored. Then there is a scrap of human hair that suggests the ancient Egyptians commonly wore hair extensions and wigs.

And, of course, there are lots of striking examples of Egyptian jewellery, including a string of beads, decorated with carnelian pendants in the shape of poppy heads, found in the grave of a small child wrapped in matting.

In short, ancient Egyptians of both sexes apparently went to great lengths to touch up their appearance.

Moreover, this was just as true in death as it was in life: witness the smooth, serene faces, with regular features and prominent eyes emphasised by dramatic black outlines, typically painted onto cartonnage mummy masks and wooden coffins.

Yet, for modern archaeologists, the ubiquity of beauty products in ancient Egypt offers a conundrum.

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