By James Robertson
The “magical” eye makeup used by the ancient Egyptians, which actually contained toxic substances, could have helped fight eye infection, say French researchers working on mummies in the Louvre.
Some ancient Egyptians believed the black eye makeup worn by women in the time of the pharaohs had magical properties that protected the wearer from certain illnesses, under the protection of the gods Horus and Ra. Eye infections are common in the swamps of the Nile when it floods and contaminated water gets into the eyes.
Originally scientists dismissed that the makeup could have medicinal qualities because the makeup was lead-based, which means it was probably toxic rather than helpful. However, after testing the substances on human skin cells, the researchers found the substances in the makeup helped the cells produce nitric oxide, which helps jump-start the immune system.
Perhaps the most significant part of this discovery is the fact that the compounds used in the makeup don’t occur naturally and had to be man-made. The scientists debate whether the Egyptians used the makeup for religious or medicinal purposes, but agree that “it is clear that such
intentional production remains the first known example of a large scale
chemical process,” they said in a statement.
Their findings will be presented in the January 15, 2010 issue of an American Chemical Society journal Analytic Chemistry.