Research Press Release

Communications Chemistry: Carbon dating ancient cosmetics

Communications Chemistry

June 29, 2018

The age of ancient Greek and Egyptian make-up can now be determined directly using a new method described in a paper published this week in Communications Chemistry. Archaeologists may also be able to use this method to date art and cosmetics made since antiquity.

White pigments used until the 19th century often contained lead carbonates. Inorganic samples such as lead carbonate are difficult to date directly, as carbon dating is mostly used for biological material, such as bone. Although lead carbonates contain radiocarbon, until now there was no method to carbon date the chemical compound directly.

Lucile Beck and authors now provide a way to measure the age of lead carbonates. The authors use the method to determine the age of make-up samples found in ancient Egyptian and Greek tombs dating from 1500-200 BC. Since this method relies on carbon incorporated into the lead carbonate at the time it was made, natural pigments can be distinguished from man-made samples.

The authors suggest that this method offers archaeologists a valuable way to date ancient materials. It may also be used to date art and paintings, since lead carbonate was used as a common white pigment throughout history.


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