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Cosmetics for the non-elite 2000 years ago: affordable raw materials and a complex production process

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The discovery of a grooming set, including two cosmetics, in a Han non-elite tomb, in Shandong, China, highlights the role of cosmetics as carriers of social cultures. This study employed complementary analytical methods, including SEM-EDS, XRD, FTIR, Raman, ELISA, GC-MS, and particle size analysis, to analyze these two cosmetics. The study reveal that one is a lead hydroxycarbonate powder probably used for whitening, while the other was a flesh-colored mica powder containing refined animal fat and plant extract, with an average size of 5μm. The latter was found enclosed in a lacquer container, which could have served as a medicated perfumed concealer. This is the first report of cosmetics used by the non-elite in China 2000 years ago. The use of affordable raw materials and a complex production process suggests that the use of cosmetics had spread from the elite to the non-elite, and the cosmetic industry had developed a regional raw material-workshop-product-consumer model by the Han dynasty at the latest.

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We thank Jing Zhu, Zhifeng Li, Jingyao Qu, and Guannan Lin from the Core Facilities for Life and Environmental Sciences, State Key laboratory of Microbial Technology of Shandong University for assistance in GC-MS.


This study was funded by project ZR2022QB249 supported by Shandong Provincial Natural Science Foundation.

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Meng Wu carried out the analyses and the manuscript writing; Zhongming Tang excavated the tombs and artifacts for this study; they contributed equally to this work. Nan Bi and Qinghua Yang prepared Figs. 1 and 2; Hui Fang and Quanyu Wang were involved in the manuscript writing. All authors reviewed the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Quanyu Wang.

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Wu, M., Tang, Z., Bi, N. et al. Cosmetics for the non-elite 2000 years ago: affordable raw materials and a complex production process. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 15, 117 (2023).

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