Chapter 5 Egyptian eye cosmetics ("Kohls"): Past and present

A. D. Hardy*, R. I. Walton, R. Vaishnay, K. A. Myers, M. R. Power, D. Pirrie

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


The published literature was summarised and reviewed for historical/archaeological data on the usage and chemical composition of Egyptian eye cosmetics ('kohls'). A total of 27 kohl samples were purchased in modern-day Egypt: 18 in Cairo, 4 in Aswan and 5 in Luxor. Also, very small amounts of material were carefully removed from inside six Pharaonic kohl pots (held in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter, UK). These pots were dated to either Middler or New Kingdom (i.e. between c. 2040 BC to c. 1070 BC). Each to the 33 samples was analysed by one or more of the following techniques: X-ray powder diffration (XRPD), low vacuum scanning electron microscopy (LV SEM), infrared spectroscopy (IR) and the relatively new technique of quantitative scanning electron microscopy (QEMSCAN). For the 27 modern-day samples, it was found that the main components for six was galena (PbS) and for the remaining samples one of the following: amorphous cabron (6), calcite (CaCO3) (6), elemental silicon (1), talc (Mg3Si4O10(OH)2) (2), cuprite (Cu2O) (1), goethite (FeO(OH) (1), barite (BaSO4) (1), halite (NaCl) (1), and for two samples, an unknown amorphous organic compound. Three of the galena-based samples also had their (average) particle sizes determined from electron micrographs. Five of the six Pharaonic kohl pots contained lead-based conpounds (one being empty of kohl). Two were black and so were most likely galena, whilst the other three were white and so were one or more of several possible "made" or natural lead compounds. The composition of the six Pharaonic kohl pots was also studied (only using the LV SEM and QEMSCAN analystical techniques) and the results compared to the compositions expected from previous visual inspections. Whilst only about a quarter (22%) of the modern-day Egyptian kohl samples contained a lead compound as a major component; it was seen, both from our results and those reviewed, that in the Pharaonic past this percentage was much higher.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-203
Number of pages31
JournalPhysical Techniques in the Study of Art, Archaeology and Cultural Heritage
Issue numberC
Publication statusPublished - 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • eye cosmetics
  • kohl
  • low vacuum scanning electron microscopy
  • Pharaonic Egypt
  • quantitative scanning electron microscopy
  • X-ray powder diffraction


Dive into the research topics of 'Chapter 5 Egyptian eye cosmetics ("Kohls"): Past and present'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this