From the cover stares a glamorous European face with incongruous Egyptian make-up. But let us not judge a book by its cover. Or maybe, in this case, we should, since this book is all about looks and the way we humans have primped, pampered, and perfumed ourselves over the millennia. And the frontispiece is fairly reflective of the tone and content of the book: it Is enjoyable, easy on the eye, and an entertaining, non-academic read – there is even advice on how to concoct the ancient remedies in our own homes.
Nonetheless, plenty of archaeology and history are interwoven throughout the pages. Thus, we learn which perfume Cleopatra favoured (camphire – made of henna flowers), and which aftershave balm Pliny favoured (a mix of oils including lily, saffron and myrrh).
But never does the author get beneath the skin of all this. For example, she does not delve deeply into the question of how makeup and perfumes might have affected the ancient economies. For instance, Yemen, producer of much ancient incense grew wealthy thanks (in part) to this trade. But clearly, intellectualising beauty is not the drive behind this book. Rather, this mix of history and beauty is a light, fun read – the literary equivalent of sparkly eye-shadow and blue eye-liner, in fact.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 13. Click here to subscribe