Saturday, 12 January 2013

The origins of the medicine of beauty

The association of flowers with natural beauty is an ancient one.

We are fortunate enough to have found the makeup boxes of egyptian queens and princesses too. In the days before todays convenient seals it made sense in the bronze age to capture the volatile essential oil in a cream,  Extensive use of resins heavy with essential oil like labdanum, frankincense, myrhh and acacia was made with beeswax.

The pharoahs fake beards were goat hair held together with labdanum resin which was used as a cure-all.  The egyptians were familiar with solvent extraction using wool fats/olive oil/castor oil/beeswax and the use of rosewater to create salves, unguents, linaments and ointments. These were used to soothe their skin from the dry heat.

The scientists accompanying Napolean to Egypt relearned the ancient use of aromatics beyond perfume and in 1838 the eminent scientist Chabenes published "Les Grandes Possibilités par les Matières Odoriferantes" and things have gone from there.

The egyptians also distilled juniper and cedarwood oils using wool screens as the condensors.  The salves found not only personal care but also veterinary use to treat sheep shearing cuts and were also rubbed into the sheeps fleece to prevent insect larval infestations.

Forgotten now, Gum arabic from the acacia was used as far as China to paint the fingernails.  Cosmetics were considered a branch of medicine and known as the medicine of beauty.

Egyptian prehistory of fire using man goes back to the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. Religion and ritual bound together these clans of humans. Clans and kingdoms came into being with the discovery of making charcoal and the working of pottery and glass.  Gold of course was found in stream and hammered into sheets for decorating purposes and to display status. Copper for weapons and horse harnesses brought the clans and kingdoms together in one unified kingdom under a god king some 5000 years ago. Writing began. Prior to that there wasnt much to record other than clan warfare, family life, and freezing temperatures.

The use of cosmetics distinguished and may even have facilitated the incredible social organisation. We have beautifully decorated ceremonial cosmetic palettes from this period which look very interesting. Maybe they were used for mixing to retain oils, honey, fat, wax and resin and perhaps they or something like it were used for mixing frankincense resin with charcoal and burning it.

Preservation wasnt really an issue as the frankincense resin was easily stored. What we do know is that these new people were not just great hunters but great sailors and traders of goods like spices and copper, kept horses and sheep, faced the same everyday issues we do and recognised as well as the visual beauty and aroma of flowers, the anti-inflammatory, preservative and insecticidal properties of essential oil whether contained in resins or woods like juniper and cedarwood. The medicine of beauty we know began early on. 

Charcoal burns at intense temperatures upto 2700 degrees.  There was plenty of forest and sand on hand.  Fine windblown sand can have a very high silica content which melts to glass at 1200 degrees.  Sodium carbonate and oxides of sodium and carbon lower this melting point.   Glass making goes back to prehistory and probably coincided with pottery making 10,000 years ago.   Colored glass not only is visually stimulating it also serves a purpose. For light sensitive materials, amber glass is most commonly used to protect light sensitive substances because amber glass is formulated to absorb light in the ultra violet region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

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