Roman Cosmetic Sets

The Romans used all sorts of beauty tools – combs and hairpins made of bone, heated curling tongs, tweezers for plucking out stray hairs, and tiny spoons to scoop wax from the ears. So what did the STRIGIL do?

A news report recently caught my attention. A number of items found and catalogued in the early 20th century have been reappraised. Metal detectorists have found similar artefacts–and many like them.

Stated simply, archaeology is the study of the past by looking for the remains and objects left by the people who lived long ago. These remains can include coins, tools, buildings, and inscriptions. Archaeologists use these remains to understand how people lived. But sometimes they get it wrong.

‘Pendants’ turn out to be Roman cosmetic artefacts

Roman ‘pendants’ excavated in the early 20th century have been revealed to be ancient cosmetic sets used for eye make-up.

The ‘cosmetic grinders’ will go on display at Wroxeter for the first time, the heritage charity said. The small pestle and mortar sets, which were developed in the first century AD, had loops to allow them to be carried on a cord which previously led people to think they were pendants.

Experts also said sets were exclusive to Britain, though they were a response to the import of cosmetics and personal beauty ideas coming from the Mediterranean and Roman provinces as far away as Egypt. They show how thriving, prosperous and metropolitan Wroxeter Roman City was 2,000 years ago, English Heritage said.

Cameron Moffett, English Heritage curator, said: “Being able to re-identify these pendants as cosmetic sets is hugely important to our understanding of the women who lived and worked at Wroxeter Roman City – these small objects literally changed the face of Britain.

“When we think of the Roman period, conversation is often dominated by the masculine realms of influence, from Emperors and politics to battle tactics, but of course women played a key role.

“It’s these functional, everyday items that really paint a picture of relatable women, to whom make-up was wholly accessible, following the trends of the time and using tools so similar to the ones we use today.” Yorkshire Post

Lunate Pendant

Seems incredible that these artefacts were originally considered pretty 2,000-year-old objects–lunate pendants’– with no use other than for decoration. English Heritage revealed that they had a fascinating purpose: as makeup applicators that the more well-heeled woman in Roman Britain would have used to put on eye makeup. The fashion was for heavy and dark, often using soot or charcoal. I particularly liked the quote from the EH curator, Cameron Moffat, who said that these small objects “literally changed the face of Britain.” Great pun and so apt!

The Romans used all sorts of beauty tools – combs and hairpins made of bone, heated curling tongs, tweezers for plucking out stray hairs, and tiny spoons to scoop wax from ears. Fashionable men wore perfume and make-up. Like today? They even had stick-on leather patches to hide any spots or scars. And why did Roman women look pale? Take my word, they did! I learnt that fact at school many years ago. Pale skin was a sure sign that a woman came from a rich, noble family. Poorer women had to work outside. Their faces burnt in the hot summer sun, and became rough and red in the cold winter winds.

Getty’s Open Content Program

Roman athletes using a STRIGIL Creative Commons license

Soap was used for laundry and medicinal purposes in the ancient world, but it was not normally used for bathing until the late 200s AD. Until then the Romans, like the Greeks before them, cleaned themselves by rubbing the body with oil and an abrasive, like fine sand or ground pumice. They then used a strigil, usually made of bronze, to scrape off the oil and dirt. The curved blade of the strigil fit the shape of the body and its concave form channelled away the oily sludge.

Although both men and women used strigils in the baths, they were most strongly connected with athletes. A strigil, a vase of oil, and a sponge were part of the equipment every athlete took to the gymnasium. Before working out, ancient athletes coated themselves in oil and a light dusting of powder. Because they exercised in the nude, this coating helped prevent sunburn and the clogging of the skin.

Pay attention!

I will answer the question why any Roman and Greek statues of men seem to have small penises, but at a later date. In the meantime look at Michelangelo’s David.

That’s a different kind of tool that simply goes to show – and reassure many
a detectorist – that they have a rather normal classical appendage. But, perhaps even that is too much information.

Detectival Find

There was an interesting and fascinating find at Detectival in 2017. The almost complete copper-alloy Roman cosmetic set comprises a pair of tweezers, a toilet spoon and a nail cleaner.

I understand that it was very popular in ancient Rome to go to the barber for your haircut, just as it is today. However, barbers in ancient Rome were seen as a real luxury because they were trained in many beautifying procedures; one being the cutting and shaping of finger nails so they were very similar to our modern day beauty salons where you can get both your hair cut and a manicure.

However, if a Roman woman was poorer and could not afford to go
to the barber to have her nails shaped, she could easily do it at home like many women do today.

Cosmetic Set

© PAS YORYM-F23346. The almost complete copper-alloy Roman cosmetic set comprises a pair of tweezers, a toilet spoon and a nail cleaner.

Roman women carried with them chatelaines, which were decorative belt hooks, or clasps that could have small tools hung from them, such as a nail cleaner and nail file, something like the Detectival 2017 discovery. Full details can be gleaned from the PAS database. Here is an extract:


The tweezers are comprised of a single piece of metal folded in half to create two parallel plates with a loop for attachment at the apex. The tweezers are rectangular in section and expand in width from the apex to form triangular plates with curved ends. The tweezers appear to be undecorated. Incised decoration is present around the loop in the form of repeating square panels with a cross within.


The toilet spoon comprises a circular sectioned shaft which flattens and expands into a scoop terminal at one end. The opposite end opens to for a loop through which the attachment loop is fitted. The toilet spoon appears undecorated. The metal has a dark green patina and is worn.


The nail cleaner comprises a pointed leaf shape blade which tapers gently from rounded shoulders to a narrow forked terminal. The blade tip are lost to old, worn breaks. An integral looped suspension terminal is present at the upper end of the body and is parallel to the plane of the blade. The nail cleaner appears undecorated.


Tweezers and nail cleaners are comparatively common finds and so are Roman copper-alloy ear scoops. See the scoop on the chatelaine. About the only thing doctors agree on anything inside your ear is a bad idea. They say that your ears usually do a good job cleaning themselves and don’t need any extra care. The only reason you should clean them is to soften or remove earwax from the outside of your ear canal. And this is what the Romans did.

One of the ear scoops recorded on the PAS database (see below) found in Buckinghamshire in 2012. This example is noteworthy in the fact that its form is more typical of a nail-cleaner; most ear-scoops having a circular-sectioned shaft.

Ear Scoop © PAS. Unique ID: BH-8F6032

Bronze statuette of a female athlete (I AD): Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg (Inv. 1917.362). Photo credit: Maria Thrun. Photo © Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Ear-cleaning scoops are freely available on the Net and you are reminded that they may be ineffective when used by anyone with little experience or guidance. When done incorrectly, significant amounts of earwax may be pushed deeper into the ear canal rather than removed. The lining of the ear is delicate and can be easily damaged. Remember, the ear is also self-cleaning and earwax is needed to protect the ear from dirt, dust, and bacterial infection. Consult your GP or a medical specialist.

5 thoughts on “Roman Cosmetic Sets”

  1. I don’t remember seeing the cosmetic set that was found during the hunt.
    I suppose they were shown in one of the editions of The Searcher. A great find.
    Hopefully your UK readers will be able to go searching again soon.
    (Pm sent)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We to this day, still use scrapers on our horses John.. but we do not use pumice or sand on them to rid them of dirt.. Somehow using those for cleaning seems contraindicative.. LOL

    Again.. a fascinating post.. we will never find anything as beautiful as the cosmetic set that you have posted..

    Many thanks my friend


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amazing finds that give us so much insight to the past.
    Roman and Greek statues having small penises, I thought they were huge , I’m left feeling very inadequate.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In a comment Gary said, “When I go to the shower at the gym people have said to me you have the the body of a Roman athlete. I always thought they were referring to my muscles…. Looking at those statues I now know what they really meant “ Gary (tinopener]

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Judging by that Bronze statuette of a female athlete, I would say she used her Strigil a little too aggressively……could that be the real reason why we have the Paralympics?

    The only good thing I found at the 2017 Detectival event John, was the beer stall?? LOL…..

    Another great read.


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