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Ancient Roman cosmetics: Skin cream from the 2nd century A.D.

Roman skin cream from the 2nd century A.D. found in a temple below London Southwark. Credit: Nature

Last week, while working on an article about the chemical make-up of 2000-year-old medicine tablets from a Roman shipwreck, I read that back in 2003 archeologists had unearthed a full canister of cosmetic skin cream, hidden in a Roman temple drain in Southwark, London.

When a Museum of London curator opened up the 2nd century A.D. canister, she found it full of white ointment, awesomely reminiscent of modern-day Nivea cream.

This rare find was then chemically analyzed by University of Bristol’s Richard Evershed, who has a quirky research niche: Figuring out the composition of ancient medical, food and cosmetic concoctions, usually by studying residues leftover on old pottery. (He made news last December by reporting that the fatty deposits on pieces of ancient Polish pottery are Northern Europe’s oldest evidence of cheese-making.)

So what precisely was in the creamy white ointment?

In a 2004 Nature

paper, Evershed’s team announced that “the Londinium cream” was primarily made up of animal fat, probably from cattle or sheep. They also detected starch, which was likely isolated by boiling roots and grains in water. In addition, the cream contained a tin dioxide mineral called cassiterite with the chemical formula SnO2.

Then came some reverse engineering. Evershed’s team mixed together a new cream based on the proportions of animal fat, starch and tin dioxide that they had measured in the ancient ointment. Here’s how they describe its aesthetic appeal:

“This cream had a pleasant texture when rubbed into the skin. Although it felt greasy initially, owing to the fat melting as a result of body heat, this was quickly overtaken by the smooth, powdery texture created by the starch. Remarkably, starch is still used for this purpose in modern cosmetics. The addition of SnO2 to the starch/fat base confers a white opacity, which is consistent with the cream being a cosmetic. Fashionable Roman women aspired to a fair complexion, and the Londinium cream may have served as a foundation layer.”

Recreated cream. Credit: Nature.

The researchers go on to say that employing tin to color the ointment white would have been safer than using toxic lead-based pigments, which was common in that era. “White Roman face paint typically comprised lead acetate, prepared by dissolving lead shavings in vinegar.”

They write that it’s not clear whether the cream’s maker intentionally opted for tin because it is non-toxic compared to lead. During the 2nd century A.D., Roman society was slowly becoming aware of lead poisoning… But then again, the chemists of that era weren’t very adept at distinguishing lead from tin, note the authors.

Another possibility is that the cosmetic-maker used tin out of convenience, because nearby Cornish mines had abundant deposits of tin dioxide. Or perhaps our cosmetic-maker was an early pioneer of the buy-local scene.

David Kroll on HuffPostLive 1PM today on #RealForbesProfessors

A quick announcement, folks:
Today at 1PM Eastern, Terra Sigillata’s David Kroll will be on HuffPostLive to chat about the stresses of life in academe. Go here for the live event.

A little background

: Earlier this month, a survey from jobs website CareerCast concluded that “college professor” was the least stressful job in America. The survey- along with a writeup about it from Forbes’s Susan Adams- drew the collective ire of America’s stressed-out professoriate, as this Inside Higher Ed story explains.

The backlash spawned its own Twitter hashtag- #RealForbesProfessors. And at Forbes, David wrote an explainer- “Top 10 Reasons Being a University Professor is a Stressful Job” – that has garnered north of 85,000 page views.

The CareerCast survey’s definition of stress had the most to do with physical demands, environmental conditions, and occupational hazards. But I venture that next time they do their survey, they’ll broaden that definition.

Gearing up for #scio13 Session 8A: Chemophobia & chemistry in the modern world

ScienceOnline2013 is but three short weeks away. Dr. Rubidium and I will be there to make sure that a major chemistry talking point gets a good airing. I’m talking, of course, about chemophobia – the idea that everything “synthetic” or “chemical” is somehow other, somehow less desirable and less safe than what’s “natural” or “organic”. (And the gulf between how chemists and the rest of the world define the word organic? Well, that is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.)

Our session is on Sat, Feb 2, 10:30-11:30 am, Room 3
CHECK OUT THE SESSION WIKI: We’ve posted a slew of links there to spark discussion. What have we missed? Tell us in the comments here or on the wiki itself. You don’t have to be registered for the conference to comment there.

You’ll see from those links that we’ve shared many a facepalm moment about “chemical-free” this-or-that. I can’t help but feel that our conversations have a little bit of that dreaded echo-chamber quality. We folks having the conversations are affirming one another. But are we changing any minds? Are we reaching any influencers? I’m not sure.

I’ll quote Forbes contributor Trevor Butterworth, who said what I’m getting at quite eloquently last August in regard to a particular mainstream media chemophobia flap.

Last May, Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-winning science writer and a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin, published a column pleading with the New York Times’ opinion columnist Nick Kristof to stop writing about chemical risk.

Blum’s column got a lot of positive coverage, with many commenters further “fisking” Kristof’s apocalyptic claims and the politics behind them. It made, alas, not a blind bit of difference. At the bookend of summer, Kristof is at it again.

No one ever said that changing minds is easy. In fact, I think it’s one of the hardest things to do. I hope that some of what will emerge from our discussion are some guidelines, some rules of engagement if you will. Chemophobia isn’t just happening in NYTimes op-eds. It happens during work hours and off-hours. Maybe by starting small, we can take back the message.

This Week on GlobCasino: cheap ethanol and Gangnam-style chemistry

It’s been a quiet week here on the network, but here’s what has happened on GlobCasino:

Cleantech Chemistry: Fulcrum Promises 75 Cent Ethanol

Grand CENtral: Talkin’ About Climate Science

Newscripts: Chemistry, Gangnam Style (it was only a matter of time) and Amusing News Aliquots

On a side note, this will be my last stint with the roundup for a while, as I’m due to go out on maternity leave, oh, any day now. In my stead, the fabulous Carmen Drahl will take over the helm of Grand CENtral and keep you informed of happenings on GlobCasino.


Talkin’ About Climate Science

Over on Reactions, a blog run by the ACS Undergraduate Programs office, grad student Parker McCrary has a pretty extensive Q&A with ACS President Bassam Shakhashiri about the newly launched ACS Climate Science Toolkit.

Shakhashiri also has an essay about the toolkit in today’s issue of C&EN. In both the blog post and the ACS Comment, Shakhashiri explains that the toolkit is intended as a resource for all ACS members to help them provide a basic understanding of climate science to members of the public.

The Toolkit is out just in time for the UN Climate Change Conference that’s in full swing at Doha, Qatar.

This Week on GlobCasino: #SheriSangji prelim hearings, Holiday gift guide, chemical-free food, biofuels bonanza

It’s another two-week recapper. The Thanksgiving starch overload did me in last week, as did all of the fabulous #foodchem carnival entries. Here’s what else happened on GlobCasino:

Cleantech Chemistry: Fast Food Fight Over Biofuels, Energy Crops: the sweet and the sour, and Advanced Biofuels Makers Thankful for RFS

Newscripts: Amusing News Aliquots and the infamous 2012 Holiday Gift Guide

Terra Sigillata: Criminal Poisoning Arrest at a Hometown Chemical Company, “Food That Doesn’t Contain Any Chemicals” – Guardian Science, and Video: Why Do Leaves Change Color?

The Safety Zone: Recaps of Days 1, 2, 3, and 4 of Patrick Harran’s preliminary hearing in the Sheri Sangji case

The #Foodchem Carnival recap

Many thanks to all who contributed delicious posts to the #foodchem carnival. Enjoy the bountiful, diverse feast the chemblogosphere has to offer.


Sweet Stuff (because there is nothing wrong with starting with dessert)

Newscripts: Easy As Pie Crust – #foodchem carnival: Beth Halford shares her family’s oil-based crust recipe.

The Finch & Pea: Pumpkin Pie: More pie! The science behind a good pie crust. (I’m eager to see a crust-off between Ben and Beth.)

Chemistry World: Food chemistry carnival – the sweet, gooey world of caramel: Phillip Broadwith’s indignation of the Great British Bake Off’s bad sugar science.

Update, 11/26: Elemental: The Chemical Cook: Deborah Blum may have been late to the carnival, but she brought some sweet words and the Derby pie. Thanks, Deb!


Seasonings & Condiments

Just Like Cooking: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and…Moringa?: Injecting a little Simon & Garfunkel into this carnival, See Arr Oh distills the healing powers of parsley, saaaaage, rosemary, and thyyyyyyyme, plus newcomer herb, moringa.

The Stoichiometric Equivalent: #Foodchem Carnival: I am most thankful for table salt this Thanksgiving: The science of salt preservation and flavoring.

It’s the Rheo Thing: Is Ketchup Really Thixotropic? And Does it Matter?: The rheology of ketchup. Why is it slow to flow in the bottle until it suddenly ends up all over your burger and fries?



Sciencegeist: #FoodChem Thanksgiving Blogging Carnival: Keeping the faith in the glory of starch, which is, to many of us, the holiest of Thanksgiving chemicals.

Organic Chemistry Tips and Techniques: The Mighty Egg-White: Need to filter fine particles from solvated compounds? Try an egg white. Bonus: Find out how to determine an egg’s age.

Lost in Scientia: The intersection of food and fuel chemistry – #foodchem carnival: Find out how much biodiesel can be produced from a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Mmm, doughnuts…

Sciencegeist: Tryptophan and Sleepiness: Bonus quickie contribution from Sciencegeist. Couldn’t have a Thanksgiving-timed foodchem carnival without mentioning tryptophan, could we?



The Haystack: #FoodChem Carnival: A bit o’ science on your Thanksgiving tippling: If you’re gonna be late to the carnival, at least bring the booze. Lisa Jarvis brings the science of champagne.



The Second Criterion: Growing up with Kitchen Chemistry (and my abiding love for Harold McGee): A lovely homage to “On Food And Cooking”

Grand CENtral: Should #foodchem lovers work as food chemists? Maybe not: Guest poster Coulombic Explosion talks about growing up with and making career choices based on a love of food and chemistry.

Chemjobber: #foodchem: Secret ingredients, secret recipes: CJ discovers that perhaps the secret ingredient to carefully-guarded recipes is simply the comfort they provide.


Food of the Future

Cleantech Chemistry: Soon You’ll be Thankful for #foodchem Microbes: Microbiologists and chemists are ready to come to the rescue of cooks (and food makers) who love spices but don’t want to break the bank.

Just Another Electron Pusher: Visions of a fictional #foodchem future: Glen give us lots of video goodness from movies that imagined food of the future.

Artful Science: Star Trek Replicators, Dystopian Futures, And The #foodchem Carnival: Sarah gets a second chance at comparing note-by-note cuisine with Star Trek food replicators and shares some extra tidbits from her story in C&EN.


Honorary participants

Slate’s BrowBeat blog: Food Explainer: Why Does Steam Make Bread Light and Crusty?: Odds are good Slate didn’t intend to participate in our humble carnival. But the post topic fit so perfectly, how could we not include it?

NPR’s All Things Considered: Enjoy Thanksgiving Sprouts Without The Stink: Chemist Shirley Corriher offers tips on how to conquer the hydrogen sulfide gas of Brussels sprouts.

Star Trek Replicators, Dystopian Futures, And The #foodchem Carnival

Over here at C&ENtral Science, we’re celebrating Thanksgiving with a food chemistry blogging carnival. Artful Science will return to regularly scheduled programming after we manage to digest all the turkey…

Jean Luc drinking his signature tea

“Tea. Earl grey. Hot.”

I never gave much thought to Jean-Luc Picard’s quintessential beverage request from the Star Trek The Next Generation replicator machine until last week.

I was talking with some friends about an article I had just filed with my editor about note-by-note cuisine. It’s the new passion of Hervé This, one of the co-founders of molecular gastronomy.

As I was describing This’ idea of creating food from chemical scratch, one molecule at a time, I suddenly realized that this is pretty much what Picard’s replicator machine had been doing all along on the Enterprise. Continue reading →