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No. 123: May-Jun 1999

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Sophisticated Chemistry In Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians applied cosmetics copiously to themselves. Upper-class women (perhaps men, too) favored green, white, and black makeup. These cosmetic powders, dating from 2,000 B.C., have been exceptionally well preserved in their original vials made of alabaster, ceramic, and wood. A team of French chemists led by P. Walter was not surprised when their analyses of these powders found crushed galena and cerussite (two ores of lead). However, they nearly dropped their test tubes when they also found chemical compounds that are extremely rare in nature; specifically, laurionite (PbOHCl) and phosgenite (Pb2 Cl2 CO3 ). In fact, these compounds are so rare naturally that the Egyptian powders must be artificial. P. Walter et al wrote:

"Taken together, these results indicate that laurionite and phosgenite must have been synthesized in Ancient Egypt using wet chemistry. The Egyptians manufactured artificial leadbased compounds, and added them to the cosmetic product. The underlying chemical reactions are simple, but the whole process, including many repetitive operations, must have been quite difficult to achieve."

It had been recognized earlier that the Egyptian chemists had used fire-based technology 500 years earlier (2,500 B.C.) to manufacture blue pigment. Wet chemistry represented another forward technological step.

(Walter, P., et al; "Making Make-Up in Ancient Egypt," Nature, 397:483, 1999.)

Comment. Uncowed by the successes of the ancient Egyptian chemists, those in the employ of Nissan have synthesized artificial bird droppings for use in testing automobile paints. The real stuff, you see, in inconsistent from batch to batch!

(Anonymous; "Best Automotive News," Parade Magazine, December 27, 1998. Cr. J. Cieciel.)

From Science Frontiers #123, MAY-JUN 1999. 1999-2000 William R. Corliss