Providing for the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian works from Eton College

Metal Applicator

By Debbie Kim, Ella Cammarato, Meg Swaney and Sanchita Balachandran

Kohl Stick, New Kingdom, ca. 1550-1069 BCE, Metal, copper alloy, L 8.2 cm x D 0.5 cm, On loan from Eton College Myers Collection, ECM 2011

This object can be identified as a kohl stick (cosmetic applicator) due to its characteristic shape; one end tapers to a point while the other flares in thickness towards a rounded end that would have been grasped while applying eye-paint. Kohl sticks, which could be made of metal–as is this example–wood, or stone, were used to retrieve different ground minerals from cosmetic tubes (such as ECM 1790, ECM 440, and JHUAM 3858) or jars (such as ECM 431) and to apply these minerals around the eyes. The most common substances used as eye-paint were malachite (green) and galena (the more common kohl black). While malachite was primarily cosmetic, kohl had additional functional and medicinal purposes. The black color helped to reflect the glare of the sun while its lead content repelled flies and was fatal to the small organism that can cause eye disease and blindness. Because of the large amounts of standing water from the Nile and irrigation canals, eye diseases born by flying insects were a common problem for the ancient Egyptians.

Technical Research

Based on a study by undergraduates Ella Cammarato and Debbie Kim, the metal applicator was likely cast and possibly later cold-worked to form it into its shape. Portable x-ray fluorescence analysis suggests that this is a copper alloy, most likely bronze due to the presence of tin in the alloy.