Wood and Ivory Kohl Tube

Margaret Swaney
Meg Swaney is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University studying Egyptian Art and Archaeology. She also holds a master's degree in Museum Studies from New York University ('13), where her research focused on the ethics of displaying Egyptian mummies, as well as a bachelor's degree in Anthropology from the University of Chicago ('11).
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Sanchita Balachandran
Sanchita Balachandran is the Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. She teaches courses related to the identification and analysis of ancient manufacturing techniques of objects, as well as the history, ethics and practice of museum conservation.

Kohl Tube, 3858, Wood, ivory, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1550-1295 BCE, H 7 cm x L 2.3 cm x W 2.7 cm


This kohl tube takes the shape of an elliptic cylinder with a groove extending the length of one of its sides for storing a small wooden cosmetic applicator (not exhibited). The dense, dark brown wood (likely ebony) is well-preserved, and its surface has a glossy sheen. The interior of the tube has a deep, cylindrical opening for storing ground minerals used for cosmetics. The top of the tube features a wooden, circular knob that supports an ivory swivel-lid. The lid mirrors the elliptical shape of the tube and also features a small semicircular cut that aligns with the side-groove. When inserted into this groove, the applicator would have held the swivel-lid in place. The black kohl (eye-paint) contained in this tube was worn by men and women and had both cosmetic and medicinal applications. Its dark 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

An x-ray of the object showing the drilled central cavity as well as a smaller drill hole for the peg used to hold the ivory lid in place.

An x-ray of the object showing the drilled central cavity as well as a smaller drill hole for the peg used to hold the ivory lid in place.

As studied by undergraduates Monica Herrera and Skylar Hurst, this kohl tube is made of a highly dense wood, possibly ebony. An x-ray shows how the wood was drilled in order to create a tubular compartment which is still partially filled with a more dense material that appears bright white in the image. Scrapes and scratches in this dense material suggest that it was removed from the tube interior, as one might remove kohl with an applicator stick. Portable x-ray fluorescence analysis shows the presence of the heavy metal lead on the inside of the tube, which is both radio-opaque (i.e., appears white in x-rays) and is the primary component of kohl. A swivel top lid is attached to the top of the body of the tube with an inserted wooden peg. Based on the cross-hatched Schreger lines visible on the lid when viewed with a stereomicroscope, this material is elephant ivory.