Field Notes

Egyptian Beauty

The full-color model is made up of more than 6 million triangular polygons — 2D shapes that are the building blocks of a 3D digital object. (Image: © Cosmo Wenman, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) See the video at the end of this field notes and the article by the Smithsonian regarding this 2019 release of digital files.
You can download the 3D file at Thingiverse and print in your own lab.
By Jennifer Keil, M.A.
Nefertiti lived from 1370 – c. 1330 BC. Her name is translated as “the beautiful woman has come” and she ruled during a period of extreme wealth during Akhenaten (1353–36 BC), the 18th Dynasty. Together, they united the kingdom with many practices from religion to cultural practices. 
The Egyptian beautification process for women was an elaborate and symbolic process.  Each act of adornment reflected a systematic approach to heighten ones physical beauty.   There were strong religious ideologies that caused women to care for their appearance.   Egyptians had a unified ideology of beauty which included wearing similar styled clothing, the usage of facial ointments, perfume, cosmetic paint, jewelry, and haircare. There was a standardized clothing style for women of all classes, but the quality of their garments varied. Egyptian women had access to many kinds of beautify products such as ointments, but it was the quantity and quality that was different among social standing.  Yet despite these economic differences, women from all classes participated in the art of ornating themselves.  This created a unified image of Egyptian beauty that symbolically portrayed this powerful country. Nefertiti lived from 1370 – c. 1330 BC. Her name is translated as “the beautiful woman has come” and she ruled during a period of extreme wealth during Akhenaten (1353–36 BC), the 18th Dynasty. Together, they united the kingdom with many practices from religion to cultural practices.

Clothing was an integral part of Egyptian society since it not only shielded the people from the elements, but it provided class identification.  The basic article that women wore in the Old Kingdom was a sheath dress.  It was a simple straight-line construction that started from above the breast and went to the ankles.[1]  It was a comfortable fit that was baggy and in some cases had sleeves.[2]  It was constructed from a single piece of fabric and sewn on one side. [3]  The fabric was composed of linen yarn which is a lightweight material.[4]  This allowed free movement and would aid in the daily tasks that women participated in from cleaning to child rearing. It was a practical design, but it maintained the standard of beauty. The working women had dresses with similar design, but were constructed of coarser material.[5]  Since women made their own clothing, working women had less access to the fine quality tools that the royals enjoyed. [6]  Linen that had woven patterns was limited and it was limited to the royals.[7]  This more ornate design would not have to be practical since the royalty spent their time in leisure.  The fact that the fashion design in clothing was the same between classes is an extraordinary fact.  The only variance between the dress designs was the quality of material.  Egyptians had access to wool, but tended to minimize its usage since they favored the lightweight linen.[8]  Herodotus noted about the Egyptians that, “They wear a linen tunic fringed about the legs and called calasiris, over this they have a white woolen garment.  Nothing woolen, however, is taken into their temples or buried with them as their religion forbids it.”[9]  Their religious practices dictated what was considered proper attire.  During the Middle Kingdom, the working women had more elaborate dresses with colors and patterning.[10]  The dresses were “dyed in bright colours- green, blue, red and yellow – as well as being bleached white.”[11]  Design variations for the working women were more readily available in this era since higher levels of production allowed more people to own decorative pieces.  In the New Kingdom, pleating was the obvious favorite in design and was sometimes incorporated in the whole dress piece.[12]  Fringe was also available and was a growing trend.[13]  The dress was not just a practical piece, but was a way to display one’s wealth.  The quality and cleanliness of the dress were the obvious symbols that you belong to an elite class.  Based on the information available, it seems that the working women’s garments would have been bland colors since it wouldn’t clearly display unclean areas.  Silk was developed since the Ptolemaic Period, but would mainly be limited to royalty because of its fine quality.[14] Silk would have been worn during celebratory events to display the value of these specialized pieces.  The Egyptians had looms which weaved textiles into high thread counts.  It was “approximately forty-five warps and forty wefts per centimeter and is greater than that of modern fine linens, all the more remarkable is that the weave is open, with space between adjacent warp and weft yarns.”[15]  The fashion of this era was remarkably modern since the quality surpassed the current quality in linens. These ancient people attended to the fine details of their everyday clothing and banquet attire.  It is evident that their belief in pursuing beauty was expressed through their linens.   

Facial ointments were practical beautification treatments. Home remedy oils and crèmes were applied to the face.  The intense sun exposure dried out the moisture in the skin. Hence the application of oils and crèmes helped revive the face.   It would help prevent wrinkling by adding additional nutritional substances and act as a form of ancient sunblock.  Egyptians created facials and anti-wrinkle treatments.[16]  The anti-wrinkle ointments were written down in recipes.[17]  “Red ochre was placed in a fat or gum-resin” to create a blush like substance that colored women’s cheeks and lips.[18]  These specified treatments could be passed down through many generations and promoted a general pursuit of youth, vitality, and beauty.  Ointments were such a prized commodity that it was used as payment for a workers wages.  At one point when Ramesses III ruled, the workers went on strike to demand their ointments that were to serve as partial payment for their wages.[19]  This act of civil disobedience by the workers showed the dedication to beauty.  

Oils and fat were utilized as a base to create perfumes.[20]  The fats or oil was saturated in flower petals to create a solid perfume.[21]  It could be applied liberally to the body to create a pleasant aroma.  A pomade was a fat that was perfumed and shaped into a cone.[22] It was place on top of an Egyptian’s head mainly at banquets.  Throughout the event, the cone would melt and release fragrance.  By the end of the night, scented oil would have been dripping down the sides of one’s face and was absorbed in the clothing.  It was used by all classes of society from the servants to the guests.[23]  This showed that personal hygiene was important to all members of society.  Other aspects of fresh fragrance were addressed by the usage of ladanum.  Women would chew on ladanum for sweet-smelling breath.[24]  Perfume treatments are not necessarily needs, hence Egyptians women focused on this aspect shows the grandeur of these people. The sweet fragrance commodity was a sign that not only did one meet the basic needs of life, but had the access to beautification products.

Cosmetic paint was applied to the eyes by all social classes.  Malachite is a green colored ore from copper.[25]  It was the most common color used from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom.[26]  The green malachite had religious symbolism to the god Horus.[27]  It was an amulet since it represented Horus’ eye. [28]  When the women decorated their eyes, they were making a spiritual connection to the god and it was a form of protection.  Women would place this eye pigment “liberally from the eyebrow to the base of the nose.”[29]  Kohl rose to popularity during the New Kingdom and it is a black paint.[30]  It is composed from galena which is an ore of lead.[31]  By the Coptic period, “soot was the basis of the black pigment.”[32]  The black eye-paint had the ability to accentuate the eye and cause it to look bigger.[33]  This was a sign of beauty and women of all social classes wore eye make-up to pursue this social standard.  This cosmetic paint distinguished these women from all other cultural societies of the time.  It displayed and assured Egypt’s power by highlighting their beauty.   It is also believed that the black paint had the prophylactic ability to deflect the sun’s glare in the eye.[34]  This would have been critical for the working women who toiled long days in the sun.  The paint safeguarded its users from eye diseases and flies.[35]  These medicinal treatments offered the users additional benefits to maintain Egyptian standards of beauty.  These eye pigments were stored in containers which ranged from shells, small vases, hollow reeds, and plant leaves.[36] The variety of materials used showed the range of social classes who used eye pigment.  Each container was intricately designed and some had religious connections.   Many women had artistic depictions of goddesses such as Horus on their containers.  This showed the women’s dedication to religious practices. Eye-paints were applied with one’s finger prior to the Eleventh Dynasty.[37]  Eventually tools were designed for application purposes.  Women would use sticks of bones, wood, ivory, or a metal rod that had a bulbous end.[38]  The eye powder was adhered to the rod once it was placed in some water.[39]  These simple techniques and wide availability of quality of face-paints allowed women from all classes to apply eye make-up. Henna was a shrub with leaves that dyed materials in a reddish tint.  It acted as a cosmetic paint by dying nails, hair, and the palms of hands.[40] It had been part of the Egyptians’ society since Thothmes III when he found this product in other countries.[41] Once it was adopted to be part of their society, ladies used it frequently.

Jewelry was worn for amuletic and cosmetic purposes.[42]  “There was a widespread belief in the ancient Near East and Egypt that demons and other dark forces threatened pregnant women and children.”[43]  In order to protect women and their offspring, it was recommended that jewelry be worn for amuletic protection.  “In the Middle Kingdom, a greater variety of female deities associated with childbirth and maternity were represented in amuletic form, most notably, Taweret, Hathor, and Iris.”[44]  Hathor was the goddess who promoted fertility.[45] Those who represented these goddesses,  like the Princess Mayet who was the “priestess of Hathor”,  had specialized jewelry designed for them.[46]  Political power was also represented in the jewelry design as evidenced in the reef knot bracelets which represented the unification power between the Upper and Lower Egypt. [47]  It had a knot in the middle of the bangle to symbolically show how these lands could not split into two because of the strong leadership.[48]  The collar piece necklace was worn near the neckline and was composed of many rows of beads.  Since this collar was a heavy piece, a mankhet pendant was attached to the collar that hung on the backside that counteracted the weight.[49]  This collar piece was expressed in many pieces of artwork and it shows the power of the individual.  Composite necklaces were constructed from small, colorful beads in intricate designs.  These necklaces were shaped into flowers, fruits, and leaves.[50]  These were cosmetic pieces.  Scholars have questioned whether composite necklaces were a part of daily life since it was composed of delicate materials.[51]

Based on Egyptian artwork, women had a large range of hair styling options for everyday and special occasions.  Women cared for their hair with oils and fats. [52]   They would use these natural products to moisturize their tresses.  Oil was a highly accessible product that grew plentifully in the in the Egyptian territories.  This made it a popular hair treatment for the poor since it was widely available.[53]  Henna was a hair coloring treatment that caused it to change to a reddish pigment.[54]  Women with long hair pulled it back by wearing a headband.[55]  The wealthy had more products available to them to maintain this society’s high maintenance beauty standards.  This is why wigs were mainly reserved to those who were prosperous since it required a hairdresser and thus limited the wide usage.[56]  If one preferred to have a shaved or cropped hair cut, a wig would provide an elaborate covering.  During the Old Kingdom, the queens had a lappet wig which had long hair and was parted in the middle.[57]  These wigs were made of human hair or a vegetable-fibre padding was an alternative.[58]  Archeological evidence has shown that women’s wigs were more simplistic than the men’s.[59]  This was a beauty preference among Egyptians that the men have the more ornate wigs.  Wigs were an important aspect of Egyptian society.  It is believed that it symbolized sexuality based on literary mention in the Tale of the Two Brothers.[60]  Since the Egyptians believed that sexuality had close ties with rebirth theology, one can conclude that the wig connected them with the afterlife.[61]  This whole method of beautification could in turn be interpreted as a deep desire to promote eternal life by means of caring for their present bodies which would be mummified and rebirthed.

Wealthy Egyptian women had mirrors that were created from “highly polished metal discs, usually of bronze.”[62]  They were shaped in circles to symbolize the sun.  In their religion, the sun had “life-giving powers and thus the mirror became a symbol of regeneration and vitality.”[63]  The mirror handles usually had symbolic connections. The papyrus was synonymous with vitality and was thus used. The goddess Hathor represented “fertility and beauty”.[64]   Those who used these objects could connect spiritually and perfect their beautification practices since the reflection could aid them with the application. Women who weren’t fortunate enough to own a mirror would have to use water and its reflection.[65] It is quite intriguing that the mirror symbolized regeneration because the belief of the afterlife seemed to be intertwined with daily tasks.

The preservation of the body was a very important task for Egyptians.  This is also seen in their mummification practices to preserve those who died in order to prepare them for the afterlife as notated by Herodotus.[66]   The beautification practices such as wearing beautiful clothing, oil treatments, make-up application, jewelry, and wigs were all part of the mummification process.  Since the philosophical ideas of self-preservation were deeply ingrained in the minds of Egyptians, it was only practical that these principles would be done during one’s lifetime.

Egyptian women pursued esthetic appeal in order to participate in the social and religious practices of their time.  Each process united this powerful nation in have a systematic ideal of beauty.  Each task was done in order to maintain a social standing and heighten one’s power by displaying the wealth in the esthetic processes.  The medicinal purposes would also help extend their quality and length of life.  The religious aspect of beauty connected them to their gods and goddesses.  They followed an eternal pursuit of maintaining beauty standards. It was a part of their daily lives and would be integral in the preparation for the afterlife when mummified.  Their deep religious beliefs were displayed by their beauty practices. Other nations observed their aesthetic ideals. These women have been examined in the modern era because they made everlasting marks in their definiton and quality of beauty.   The Egyptian women will be forever remembered as a people who pursued precise methods of beauty in a unified manner.

 

Bibliography

Anne Capel and Glenn Markoe, eds. Mistress of the House Mistress of Heaven. New

York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996.

Casson, Lionel. Ancient Egypt. New York: Time Incorporated, 1965.

Ebeling, Jennie. Women’s Lives in Biblical Times. London: T & T Clark International,

2010.

“Egypt’s Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom 1558-1085 B.C.”, Boston:

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982.

James, T.G.H. The British Museum Concise Introduction to Ancient Egypt. Michigan:

The University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Lucas, A. “Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 16, no. ½  (May 1930).41-53, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3854332

(accessed  November 11, 2010).

“Making an Ancient Egyptian” Eye Witness to History, www.eyewitnesshistory.com (2008).

Murray, Margaret. The Splendour that was Egypt. London: Sidgwick and Jackson

Limited, 1963.

Rodriguez, Angel. “All About Cosmetics,”

http://biblicalresearch.gc.adventist.org/Biblequestions/All_About_Cosmetics.htm

(accessed  November 19, 2010).

Stead, Miriam. Egyptian Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Strudwick, Nigel. Masterpieces of Ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press,

2006.

Thomas, Nancy. The American Discovery of Ancient Egypt. Los Angeles: Los Angeles

County of Museum of Art, 1995.

Watson, Philip. Costume of Ancient Egypt. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

 

 

[1] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 47.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Egypt’s Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom 1558-1085 B.C.”, (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982), 180.

[5] Philip Watson, Costume of Ancient Egypt (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), 21.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 47.

[8]  T.G.H. James, The British Museum Concise Introduction to Ancient Egypt (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2005), 180.

[9] “Egypt’s Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom 1558-1085 B.C.”, (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982), 180.

[10] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 47.

[11] Philip Watson, Costume of Ancient Egypt (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), 21

[12] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986),  47.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Egypt’s Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom 1558-1085 B.C.”, (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982), 180.

[15] “Egypt’s Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom 1558-1085 B.C.”, (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982), 180

[16] Angel Rodriguez, “All About Cosmetics,” http://biblicalresearch.gc.adventist.org/Biblequestions/All_About_Cosmetics.htm (accessed November 19, 2010).

[17] Angel Rodriguez, “All About Cosmetics,” http://biblicalresearch.gc.adventist.org/Biblequestions/All_About_Cosmetics.htm (accessed November 19, 2010).

[18] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 54.

[19] Ibid, 51.

[20] A. Lucas, “Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 16, no. ½  (May 1930).41-53, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3854332 (accessed November 11, 2010).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 47

[23] Ibid, 51.

[24] A. Lucas, “Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 16, no. ½  (May 1930).41-53, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3854332 (accessed November 11, 2010).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 52.

[27] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 53.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 52.

[30] Ibid.

[31] A. Lucas, “Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 16, no. ½  (May 1930).41-53, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3854332 (accessed November 11, 2010).

[32] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 52.

[33] “Egypt’s Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom 1558-1085 B.C.”, (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982), 216

[34] Ibid.

[35] Angel Rodriguez, “All About Cosmetics,” http://biblicalresearch.gc.adventist.org/Biblequestions/All_About_Cosmetics.htm (accessed November 19, 2010).

[36] A. Lucas, “Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 16, no. ½  (May 1930).41-53, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3854332 (accessed November 11, 2010).

[37] A. Lucas, “Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 16, no. ½  (May 1930).41-53, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3854332 (accessed November 11, 2010).

[38] “Egypt’s Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom 1558-1085 B.C.”, (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982), 217.

[39] A. Lucas, “Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 16, no. ½  (May 1930).41-53, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3854332 (accessed November 11, 2010).

[40] Ibid.

[41] Margaret Murray, The Splendour that was Egypt  (London: Sidgwick and Jackson

Limited, 1963), 84.

[42] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 54.

[43] Jennie Ebeling, Women’s Lives in Biblical Times (London: T & T Clark International, 2010), 105

[44] Capel, Anne, and Glenn Markoe, eds. Mistress of the House Mistress of Heaven (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), 70.

[45] Capel, Anne, and Glenn Markoe, eds. Mistress of the House Mistress of Heaven (New

York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), 72

[46] Nancy Thomas, The American Discovery of Ancient Egypt (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County of Museum of Art, 1995), 145.

[47] Nancy Thomas, The American Discovery of Ancient Egypt (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County of Museum of Art, 1995), 142.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 55.

[50] T.G.H. James, The British Museum Concise Introduction to Ancient Egypt (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2005), 180.

[51] T.G.H. James, The British Museum Concise Introduction to Ancient Egypt (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2005), 180.

[52] A. Lucas, “Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 16, no. ½  (May 1930).41-53, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3854332 (accessed November 11, 2010).

[53] A. Lucas, “Cosmetics, Perfumes and Incense in Ancient Egypt.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 16, no. ½  (May 1930).41-53, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3854332 (accessed November 11, 2010).

[54] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 54.

[55] Philip Watson, Costume of Ancient Egypt (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), 61.

[56] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 50.

[57] Philip Watson, Costume of Ancient Egypt (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), 61.

[58] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 49.

[59] Nigel Strudwick, Masterpieces of Ancient Egypt (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 194.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 54.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Miriam Stead, Egyptian Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 54.

[66] “Making an Ancient Egyptian” Eye Witness to History, www.eyewitnesshistory.com (2008).

Isa Genzken Nofretete, 2014 "Isa Genzken: Make Yourself Pretty!" at Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin

We encourage you to read Artsy’s How Nefertiti Became a Powerful Symbol in Contemporary Art for additional art interpretation of this icon.

“For all the lore that surrounds Nefertiti’s image, very little is known about the life of the “beautiful one,” as she is called. In fact, Nefertiti largely disappeared from the historical record by the 12th year of her husband Akhenaten’s reign, when she was around 30 years old. Yet as an ancient muse, her cultural potency is only enhanced by this mystique. Without it, she would not be fit for the artistic and political projection that remains foundational to her posthumous reception.”

Bust of Queen Nefertiti

New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, ca. 1340 BC
Limestone, gypsum, crystal and wax
Amarna
Height 50 cm
Inv.-No. ÄM 21300

“This bust is one of the first ranking works of Egyptian art mostly due to the excellent preservation of the colour and the fine modelling of the face. She was found in 1912 during the excavations of the German-Orient-Association in city of Achet-Aton, today known as Amarna. The individualized face and the special crown, tall, flat-topped decorated with a ribbon and the remains of a uraeus at the front identify the statue as Nefertiti. The bust served , as did many other masks found in the workshop of the Tuthmosis, as a model for artists producing portraits of the queen. She is shown as a grown woman with a harmonic and balanced beauty which is not disturbed by the slight folds under the eyes and chin as well as the slightly sunk cheeks.

The bust is made of limestone which is covered with modelled gypsum. The eye is inlayed with crystal and the pupil attached with black coloured wax. The second eye-inlay was never carried out.”

The BBC reported an Egyptian tomb have been opened. The “Sarcophagi buried for 2,500 years unearthed in Saqqara. A total of 27 sarcophagi buried more than 2,500 years ago have been unearthed by archaeologists in an ancient Egyptian necropolis.” Our cultural fascination with dynastic rulers never ceases.

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