Ancient makeup used by royals to make faces shine : Cosmetics discovered in tombs give glimpse into history of beauty

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Ancient makeup used by royals to make faces shine : Cosmetics discovered in tombs give glimpse into history of beauty


A collection of cosmetic cases and tools (right) has been uncovered from an 18th-century tomb located in Namyangju, Gyeonggi. The tomb (left) belonged to Princess Hwahyeop (1733-52) who died at the age of 20 due to measles. [CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION]

A collection of cosmetic cases and tools has been unearthed from the 18th-century tomb of a princess, named Hwahyeop, from Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), providing a glimpse into the makeup culture of Joseon’s royal court.

Inside the cases are materials which could have been used for makeup, although scientific tests on the substances have yet to take place.
According to Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA), an archaeological exploration took place on the tomb located in Namyangju, Gyeonggi last month. Archaeologists found a tombstone, pottery, wooden cases, a bronze mirror and wooden combs, among other things.


(From left) Porcelain container for face powder belonging to Lee Bang-ja (1901-89), or the wife of Prince Yeongchin (1897-1970); Powder puffs belonging to Princess Deokon (1822-44); Comb cleaners and rouge used on the cheeks and forehead belonging to Princess Deokon; Combs and hair-parting tools belonging to Lee Bang-ja; A porcelain container for hair oil belonging to Lee Bang-ja [NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM OF KOREA, DANKOOK UNIVERSITY SEOKJUSEON MEMORIAL MUSEUM]

Princess of the renaissance

Princess Hwahyeop (1733-52) lived during the so-called renaissance era of the Joseon Dynasty - when arts, culture and science saw remarkable strides.

She was the beloved daughter of King Yeongjo (1694-1776).

This makes her the older sister of Crown Prince Sado (1735-62) who was killed by his own father, trapped in a rice chest and starved to death. She is also the aunt of King Jeongjo, who along with Yeongjo, is credited with bringing the renaissance era to Joseon. The three are often featured in historical dramas and novels in Korea for the dramatic lives they led.

Princess Hwahyeop died at just 20 years old due to the measles, and had no children. Historical records say she was beautiful, taking after her mother. The tombstone with 394 letters engraved on its three facets was written by her father, King Yeongjo, and his extreme grief from losing his young daughter is evident.

Time capsule

The highlight of the artifacts from the tomb of Princess Hwahyeop is the group of cosmetic cases and tools.

“The blue-and-white porcelain cases are filled with substances that are thought to be makeup,” Im Seung-gyeong, a researcher with CHA’s archaeological policy division, said. “Organic matter [from this period] is extremely rare.”

One tool, that resembles a little black stick and could have been used to apply blush, has also been found, officials noted. Traditionally, Korean women used blush to color their cheeks and foreheads.

Kim In-gyu, a researcher at the National Palace Museum of Korea, where the artifacts are being held, said that they will conduct scientific tests on the substances inside the cases this year.

“Cosmetic cases that come with substances inside are quite rare,” he noted.

Though cosmetic goods are commonly found in the tombs of ancient Koreans, it’s unclear in the case of Princess Hwahyeop whether the cosmetic cases and tools were used by her when she was alive or were burial items produced to go inside the tombs.

It’s also interesting how the cases are made of white porcelain with blue decorations.

Blue-and-white porcelain is created by drawing on white porcelain using pigments containing cobalt, which was produced in Persia and imported through China during the Joseon era.

As a result, cobalt was extremely expensive - more so than gold - and was exclusively reserved for the royal court.

Lead and wax

For its 2010 exhibition, titled “White Porcelain Jars: Embracing the Joseon Ideals and Rituals,” the National Museum of Korea conducted scientific tests on the substances found inside the cosmetic cases uncovered from the two tombs that were studied between 1949 and 1950.

They were the tombs of Prince Euiso (1750-52), the son of Crown Prince Sado, who died at just two years old; as well as Queen Yun (1766-79), who married King Jeongjo and was the sister of then-political heavyweight Hong Guk-yeong (1748-81).

According to Yu Hye-seon, a researcher at the museum, what appeared to be sugar cubes were found inside a porcelain case inside the tomb of Prince Euiso. Tests found that it was actually white lead ore. She said the substance was used for ancient paintings. An ancient Chinese encyclopaedia said that people often used white lead ore for makeup but there were concerns regarding lead-poisoning.

It’s interesting that even in the tomb of a crown prince, cosmetic cases and tools were found. “Historical records say not just women but also men washed their faces with powder to make their skin fair and that men also applied makeup to show their status and position,” she said.

From two cases found inside the tomb of Queen Yun, researchers found with their tests that the brown materials inside were bee’s wax. Yu said that wax appeared to have been mixed with other substances.

“Wax in ancient makeup seems to have been used for two purposes,” she said. “One is for skincare. When mixed with honey extract and with scent added, it could have been used as a moisturizing cream. Second is for haircare. When mixed with oil, it can be used on the hairline.”

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