Roman Cosmetics and Eye Disease?

Interesting item from Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience  … excerpts:

Roman-era toiletry sets consisting of tweezers, scrapers and other artifacts have long been interpreted as beauty aids. But it’s possible the tools had a more gruesome use: to treat a type of Chlamydia that infects the eye.

The tools are found across Great Britain and date back to around A.D. 43 to A.D. 410, a time when much of the island was under Roman control. They do bear resemblance to modern-day cosmetic kits, but they’re also similar to tools used in folk treatments of trachoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness around the world today, said Wendy Morrison, a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Oxford.


The tool kits in question typically consist of tweezers; small spoons, possibly used for the removal of earwax; fingernail cleaners; files; probes; and grinders that may have been used to crush substances to make cosmetics. The kits are often found with loops for hanging, Morrison said.


A Sightsavers image of a Kenyan woman wearing tweezers around her neck first inspired Morrison to investigate the tool kits further. Trachoma has been infecting humans since prehistory, with evidence of the disease found on the bones of Australians dating to 12000 B.C. The disease, or one very much like it, was also present in Roman-era Britain, Morrison said. Researchers investigating a 2,000-year-old Roman shipwreck reported in January that they’d found medical tablets,possibly used for the treatment of eye diseases.


Morrison envisions distinctly non-beauty-related uses for the grooming-kit tools — for instance, tweezers to pluck inwardly turned eyelashes, and nail cleaners to scrape rough growths off the inside of the eyelids. “Cosmetics grinders” could have been used to crush up medicinal herbs and other substances to make salves to sooth eyelid pain. And earwax scoops could have been used to apply those salves.

For now, this interpretation is just a guess. So far, no one has been able to unearth a cosmetics grinder with testable material still clinging to it. If archaeologists were to find something like that, they might be able to determine what, exactly, Roman-era Britons were grinding up. A discovery like that, or of a newly translated text referring to the objects, could strengthen the trachoma theory.

“I won’t be holding my breath,” Morrison said.

Still, Morrison said she hopes to explore the kits further in the future. Trachoma thrives in certain conditions, so if grooming kits are found to be more common in trachoma-friendly areas, that finding may support the idea that the grooming kits were used to treat eye disease. Morrison published her theory in the May issue of the Oxford Journal of Archaeology.

… of course, it’s not really an ‘either-or’ type of thing; things might have a dual purpose.

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