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Excavating kohl


Twice a year I am part of an archaeological excavation team that visits Middle Egypt and excavates the Pharaonic city of Tell el-Amarna. Here, several non-elite burial grounds are being researched. The individuals buried here in shallow graves, are interred with very few grave goods. One of the few categories of grave goods that are found are kohl and kohl containers.


Although it sounds impossible to study eyelids and eyelashes decorated with kohl from archaeological context, from Egypt some remains are known, even though well-preserved eyelids are still a rare find. In Tell el-Amarna however, a few individuals were found with eyelids, eyelashes and eyebrows still intact. And although no remains of kohl were visible (upon macroscopic examination at least), it does give an indication of what would be necessary to perform this kind of research.

The non-elite kohl containers found in Tell el-Amarna are considerably less luxurious than the kohl containers we know from many museum collections. Small rectangular pieces of greyish substance are found, pieces of kohl that have completely hardened into the shape of the (reed/plant) container it was originally stored in. Sometimes only the bottom of such a container is left.

One of the more amazing finds I discovered, is presented below. In one of the hardened surfaces of the greyish kohl, the shallow impression of a bulgy object was left (image on the left). An imprint of the bulgy end of the needle could be identified here, on the exact spot where the owner or her relatives had placed it for the last time before she was buried! To me, finding the impression of that needle bridged the gap between me, living in the 21st century, and that Egyptian lady in the 14th century BCE.

Want to know more? Check out my book Paint it, Black here. If you like to support the archaeological research of the Amarna Project, you can do so via this link.

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