Archaeologists open 2,000-year-old pot of Roman hand cream to discover fingerpints inside

By David Prudames | 28 July 2003 | Updated: 08 October 2014
Shows a photo of two rubber gloved hands holding a tin containing some white cream.

Photo: the 2000-year-old pot of cream was unearthed in Southwark, south London earlier this month at one of the most extensive Romano-Celtic temple complexes to be found in the capital.

Archaeologists opened up a sealed Roman box at the Museum of London on July 28 - its contents: 2000-year-old cream, complete with perfectly preserved ancient finger marks.

Measuring six centimetres by five, the small metal pot was unearthed in July 2003 close to a newly-discovered Romano-Celtic temple complex in Southwark, south London.

Described by a spokesperson from EC Harris - the archaeological consultancy that found the object - as "creamy and still slightly mushy," the ointment has several clear marks that seem to have been left there by the fingers of the last person who used it, 2000 years ago.

The pot was discovered in a Roman drain and while experts are not certain what the cream was used for, it is believed to have been hidden deliberately.

"This is a find of such rarity - although we don't yet know whether the cream was medicinal, cosmetic or entirely ritualistic," explained Nansi Rosenberg, Senior Archaeological Consultant at EC Harris.

"We're lucky in London to have a marshy site where the contents of this completely sealed box must have been preserved very quickly - the metal is hardly corroded at all. To find fingermarks is so very extraordinary - we are literally touching hands with history."

Shows an artist's impression of how the temple complex might have looked.

Image: an artist's impression of how the extensive temple complex might have looked. © Helen Davies.

The site is the first religious complex to be found in the capital for 50 years and provides rare evidence of organised religion as it was conducted 2000 years ago.

Uncovered in October last year, archaeologists were thrilled by the original discovery of a single temple. This soon turned into two temples, quickly followed by a guest house and three plinths for statues of which a bronze finger, foot and several pieces of stone sculpture were found.

They also unearthed what appears to be an outdoor enclosure possibly used for large open air ceremonies. The discovery has drastically altered the archaeological view of Roman London.

"We are delighted as we expected the area to be mostly agricultural," said Gary Brown, Managing Director of Pre-Construct Archaeology, who've been working on the site for a year.

"Three roads meet here near the river crossing - Watling St from Dover, Stane St from Chichester and the bridgehead road over the Thames. Shops began lining the roads shortly after the invasion in AD 43 - this was the trading post of frontier London."

"Around a hundred years later the picture changes. This area on the edge of Londinium seems to have been set aside for prayers, ceremonies and dedications to the gods."

The small pot of cream has been donated to the Museum of London and is set to go on display from July 29 2003.

Update: According to a report in Nature magazine researchers discovered that the cream was cosmetic and may have been used to make the skin appear white.

Two major components, each making up about 40% of the total, were starch and animal fat, which probably came from the carcass of a cow or goat. The remaining ingredient was synthetic tin oxide (or cassiterite), which would have coloured the cream white.

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