Makeup in the Nubian Civilization (Tools, colors and materials)

Mon, 16 Oct 2017

                                             ( Dr. Ayda Mohammed Ali)


We present briefly in this paper the makeup in the Nubian civilization, the tools, colors and materials. We started with the boots and then rolled over three axes. The first axes, the Nubian makeup tools: in it we presented the makeup tools such as combs, kohl containers, and stencils, looking glasses and tools used to process makeup materials and others. The second axes, colors used for makeup and ornament. We mentioned some basic colors, such as green, black, gray, red, yellow and the white, and how they are composed. The third axes is given the address : oils and perfumes in Nubians. The paper has come to an end accompanied by results, recommendations and references.



     The usage of the word “makeup” is a new usage, but intended meaning is the ability to use colors, dyestuff and the oils to change and ornament the character of the Nubian person, whether a woman, a man, old or young. No doubt, makeup in this sense is an old meaning known and was familiar by human beings.  The art of makeup, like other   forms of art, was associated with the appearance of man on the surface of the earth, it was used by the primitive man to instill terror in the hearts of his enemies in wars and for decoration as well. Sometimes he used the makeup to highlight his strength, to show his beauty, to show his anger and to feel joy. Through the history, man used the makeup to deal with nature and its forces in request of rain and to rebel evil forces and deal with spirits. The use of makeup continued also for religious practices, the embodiment of personalities and holy souls, and the representation of various personalities on the stage.

     There is no specialized scientific study that explains the usage of the makeup and ornament tools by the Nubians in particular. We are replacing that shortage by observations, pictures and reference to the tools found and some tools that had been explored in the Nubian civilization. Also, by referring to what had been mentioned in some scientific references that generally discuss some materials used in makeup which was being brought from the Sudan.

     The desire to beatify facial appearance existed since the dawn of the Sudanese civilization like other civilizations. The makeup and beautifying the face might go back to early periods of history. This is clear in the makeup used in religious rituals and necromancy of ancestors, and treatment of the individual with the community around him. It may be noted from the pictures of the old Nubian civilization and what they had left as such archaeological remains and monuments, that they have used oils and colors to ornament their faces which was decorated with accessories and closing, and reflected the splendor and fashion. There were no time intervals that can specify certain materials or tools or colors which were used in certain periods through the Nubian history, it is believed that the extension of that culture and experience have been continuous through the history of the Nubians from the civilization of the groups to the Meroitic civilization. But, it certainly has undergone modernization and development in all  its aspects, like all experiences and human practices. Whatever it was, those practices have extended to the life of the individual to reflex the aesthetic dimension of Nubian men and women. Such practices are not without religious and medical believes.

     There is no evidence of the knowledge of the Nubians of makeup and ornament more than those surprising tools and utensils which were assigned for painting and the tools of facial and hair makeup and other beautifying used tools. Some great needles used to ornament the eye brows, others from bone or metal, small pottery utensils for personal ornamental usage, some of glass, looking glasses, many accessory instruments like necklaces, earrings, bracelets, beads and various ornaments from metals, bones, stones and seashells, including all the Nubian groups and  ancient states, even since the emergence of cultural awareness to the so called the Sudanese stone age.

The Nubian makeup tools:

      By looking at the makeup and ornament tools that belong to that Sudanese Nubian civilization, the researcher in this civilization can put the general frame of how the Nubian person had treated the makeup as means to prove his social existence and reflecting his artistic sense of high taste. So, the tools to come here presents just an example of the Nubian makeup and ornament tools.


A box to keep makeup tools; found in a cemetery of a woman in Karanoaj, refers to the Meroitic era from wood and ivory, length 23.1, height 26.1, width 26.5 cm. a package of kohl found beside it. Although the wood is damaged, the ivory is undamaged, the box has been repaired by fixing the ivory parts in a new wooden structure.

      The box is now oriented by pieces of ivory or bone. It has been customary of the Meroitic cemeteries in Karanoaj to put boxes containing their personal things in addition to the jewels. The box of makeup tools is considered a sign to a Nubian thought that showed early care to collect the personal tools and materials of the makeup and ornament in one place to keep all these chosen materials away from the nature around. That might also points at the sensitivity of these materials and fear of being damaged, knowing the importance and privacy of those substances which are applied directly on their skins.


      Comb: this picture is for a comb made of ivory in the museum of Khartoum. Found in K          Karuka returns back to the Neolithic era, the second half of the fourth thousand BC.

       It might be this comb has been made of ivory that was cut and refined. One can see the edges of the comb are broken, it was formed of seven teeth, the base is still in order. Some pieces of ivory have been found in a cemetery’s store, some were found processed, while some were semi-processed.  Ivory was used in making the ornament tools like combs, bracelets and the boxes to keep the tools. In spite of the presence of many combs that date back to recent periods, the Neolithic combs have special importance due to their viability. Giving attention to appearance, the first thing a person does is to look at the condition of his hair, men and women are same in this respect. The monumental paintings and sculptures that belong to the ancient Nubian eras show a great care to hairdressing and display its various forms. It might be that this kind of combs is being used by putting its end inside the forehand holding it well, or it is held between the thumb and forefinger, depending on the wrist, passed many times in the hair until it is styled as is desired.


    Hair forceps: from seashell. This forceps returns to the (c groups), length 4.9, thickness0 .23 cm,(the Egyptic museum in university of Leipzig). It was used by women, it was normally made of seashells and sometimes of ivory. These kinds of forceps have been found in cemeteries attached to the group c , that means they were prevailing in recent eras. The forceps composed of two long tips and a pierced disc with a rift. On using it, the hair is entered in the rift to reach to the hole in the disc. These forceps were fragile, easily damaged because of the kind of the substance has a low endurance. Mostly, the safety of the hair was considered by choosing the substance avoiding hair shaking and the ease of entering and pulling hair from it.

The shaving knife: dating back to the classical Karma period, found in the eastern cemetery, the sandy grave Karma. Made of copper alloy; the holder length 18 cm. width 1.8 cm.  , ref.# the blade length 7.4 cm. width 4.4 cm. thickness 0.8


cm. the British museum, London. Taking a shape of small axe, slightly curved holder made of a thin folded piece of tin ends by a small tapered head, the blade in a trapezoidal shape having a triangle at the upper tip, extending to form an upright head, fixed inside the folded tin of the holder by six nails. This knife is one of sixteen shaving knives discovered in a large, built sandy grave to indicate the place where the king of Karma had been graved. Most of these knives were used a little. These razors have been used to remove the hair off women faces, and to shave the hair, beards and mustaches of men. Used also for priestly ritual shavings. This habit had been exercised by men and women. Men were shaving beards and mustaches, mostly, women didn’t shave their hair, they care for their heads hair by applying fat and oils to grow longer and become elegant.

Sheath for ornament tools: made from ivory found in Kudrukka, goes back to the Neolithic era, about the second half of the fourth century, length 12.1, diameter 4.4, radius 2.1cm. Thickness 0.3 cm, (the museum of Khartoum). This sheath made of ivory, his maker benefited from the form of his natural bending, the upper end is ornamented by parallel lines. Many of these sheathes have been found, containing the malakhit powder, agreen colored .


raw of copper raws with a thin needle made of bone. These sheathes had been found only in Nubian area at two cemeteries in Kudrukka and Sadinga at the south of the third waterfall. Found in a grave of an adult beside flasks made of quartz .

Kohl container: Karanoaj, goes back to the Meroitic era, made of wood and ivory, length 17.5 cm., diameter 4.3 cm.(Pennsylvania, USA), monuments & anthropology museum. This kohl container is one of the vessels with the most beautiful decoration and craftsmanship, and it is one of the tools that had been extracted from the cemetery of Karanoaj, and was inside a discovered box of a woman’s grave. This vessel is ornamented by graphics in a shape of squares and triangles from ivory, in the middle there are ivory pillars of a cylindrical shapes. The habitants of Karanoaj were coloring their eyes by kohl, from green malakhit or the galina of the black color. This kohl was being put in wooden containers or other substances ones. There is a need to find a smaller container with a small nozzle to transfer the kohl through it to the needle, as the kohl containers were bigger than are needed to show their wealth. The kohl was extracted from this container by the needles.



Marwad (needle) from bone and metal: goes back to the Meroitic era,(Khartoum national museum). Marwad is a tool to be washed and inserted inside special vessels inside which the kohl substance is put. These tools are desired to be made thin in order to be inserted inside the narrow nozzle kohl containers and then apply it between the eye lids. I think the ancient people preferred to make it from ivory or the bone, due its smooth feel for the safety of the eye, later metal elements were added. The presence of those kohl containers is a proof of the spread of beatifying eyes among ancient Sudanese.


A looking glass made of bronze goes back to Karma era. Length 16.2 cm. (the museum of Khartoum). Might belong to VIPs of the royal family or nobles. These tool sympolize certainly elevation. Mirrors were precious tools and full of symbols, and were not confined to daily usage only. As they were considered cultural elements, the concave shape of the polished disk indicates the traditional shape of the sun. This mirror is purely made of bronze. The disc of the sun is located on a handle on top of which, two shapes of eagle on the two sides, the handle appears as a shape of a bleated artificial beard used in the ceremonies. The round shape of the mirror with the handle at the bottom indicates that women were used to grasp the mirror by one hand while applying makeup on their faces, eyes and lips by the other hand using the mirror to clearly see. It might be said that men were using such a mirror to be sure of their appearance and makeup, especially when they attend rituals and religious rites.


Crockery vase with a cover for ornament tools: found in the island of Sai, goes back to the medium period of Karma era- the cemetery. Made of a limestone, the diameter of the nozzle 12.6 cm. the large diameter 21.3 cm.(Khartoum museum). This vessel was used to keep the ornamental substances, it contained fatty substances and perfumery oils. These vessels were desired in that era for keeping perfumes extracted from plants and from animal’s fats, used both by men and women. Also, used to keep aromatic materials.


Tools for preserving decorations: goes back to Nabata era. The picture on the right is for glassware to preserve aromatherapy and oils, in the middle a container for frozen fat, enables entering a hand to rub off fats. Fats might be fat grills for hair or body. The board on the left is for four different containers characterized by a flattened bowl, might be a vessel to mix perfectly heavy fat and aromatic materials by hand. Hence, it is clear that the ancient Nubians spend a lot of time dedicated to make the ornament materials by mixing and getting it ready, putting every kind in a specifically assigned container, ready to be used in all their days and various, personal social and religious occasions.

Tablets for processing ornament


Materials: found at Kudrukka, go back to the Neolithic era.  Made of the firestone,(Khartoum museum). The tablet to the right is provided by a handle made of the same material of the tablet. These tablets have a rectangular shape, their edges are not sharp, and the surface of the tablet is polished. The Neolithic tablets have almost the same form, with different dimensions. In recent periods, these tablets were made of polished glassy stones to fit the group. One of these tablets found beside a skeleton together with a collection of seashells which might have been used as containers, found in a burial place containing the remains of three people. These tablets were used to crush the ornament materials such as the powder of the eyelashes or to prepare colors to color the teeth. Some skeletons with colored teeth had been found in a Neolithic burial in Algaba. This tablet had been found among funerary materials in a burial and was lying on another clay tablet. The existence of these tablets explains how the ancient Nubians got the colors; by crushing the colored stone, clay and sandy materials to be used as color materials for body, faces and hair representing one of the uses of composed colors.

Colors used for makeup and ornament:

     The reality inspired the ancient Nubians desire to adorn and what shapes they wanted to emulate is, no doubt, connected by the nature and the surrounding environment. The shining and bright colors surrounding deliver them with inspiration and try to quote aesthetic and drink the nectar of nature and harmony together. Whoever adorns them with some of them, will undoubtedly be proud and feel the beauty of himself. But, the makeup doesn’t depend on colors alone apart from the style of application, the way of mixing and matching with other makeup components. But that does not snap the importance of color in changing of the basic character. The knowledge of the colors that the ancients dealt with, involves regarding the materials around them while analyzing the colors seen on some portraits and monumental sculptures. The stones of the intended colors were brought, broke to small pieces to be crushed by the color maker on solid stones. To get various colors is possible by mixing or adding two or more colors. Those colors were put carefully inside special containers for preservation, the final result are very elegant and beautiful colors, managed to withstand the times and reach our present era in a form of portraits and nice colored sculptures.


The green color: it is the color produced by copper natural compounds, it is the one called Malakhit. The ancient Nubians used this color to produce kohl in a fantastic elegant way and, also made the eye shadow from it. The kohl had been made, probably, after selecting stones that are predominantly green, by breaking the stone to small parts and crushed to fine powder over solid stones, often of quartz or firestone that is prepared to crush the color materials, i.e. stones, clay and sandstones. After being prepared the Malakhit in packages inside containers becomes ready for use. Kohl has a social importance characterizes the Nubian person, also in the rituals of the inauguration of the king.


The black & gray color:

 It is extracted from ores of lead called (galina). It had been used as kohl for the eyes and lining eyebrows, beside other usages for coloring and dyeing.

       The blue color: the ozarit metal is one of the old metals in nature, after crushing, it becomes a material of dark blue color, it is a kind of blue copper carbonate, used to color hair and many materials as well.


 The red color: a sandy Nubian stone with many colors. Many parts of iron oxides were found during digging processes, they differ in volume and color, ranging between dark red and pale red. Composed of clay and sand stones. The origin belongs to the Nubian sandy stone near Omdurman city from where it was brought to ornament bodies according to the practice of the first human being, also to make a pale red color to color the vessels of cla[1]y.



The Yellow color: pieces of yellow sandstone, in different volumes and colors, from light orange to pale yellow. These stones were found, although not available locally, as it is the case with the red stones, these stones found locally.[1]

The white color: a small number of white dyeing has been found. Surely, most of it was formed by rubbing something. This clay is identical to the Nubian kinds that are found in the region of Omdurman, some pieces have pale yellow color. It seemed that they were used to color the clay made vessels as well as coloring the body[2].

      I think the Nubian sandstone provided the most important color material which is used to ornament the face and the body with many colors. Some colors were composed by adding a small amount of another color or many colors.

Oils & perfumes

Fats, perfumes and incense: the current usage of the natural substances, such as oils, fats used to paint hair, face and body are inspired by traditions of grand fathers who knew and used these lotions. These applications are being inherited by sons from fathers, hence that knowledge continued according to their appreciation to the spiritual and aesthetic value. You can find in the Sudan alone thousands of natural lotions that are used in decorating and beautification which is usually different from those natural lotions that are inspired by foreign cultures and traditions. The great estimation is given to the local lotions due to cultural and environmental variables in the first place. The abundance of the used material in making the lotion, oil or paint is considered the main factor to the persistence of its make, preparation and provision for use. Might be, the Egyptians have benefited greatly from the imports of the Sudanese productions to enhance the role of paints and oils, as most of the materials used are produced in the Sudan, such as sesame oil, castor oil, henna and aromatic materials extracted from ebony, acacia wood, wood of, buckthorn, iris flower, hejleej plant and others, being materials of ornamental dimension. The knowledge of the usage of those materials started first in the Nubia, then transferred automatically during mutual trading operations with the Egyptians or others, or with every invasion to the Nubian lands from the neighboring Egyptian state or the Greece, Romans or the Persians, this is a proof the existence and usage by Nubians in the first place.

     The writer Alfred Lucas mentioned in his book (materials and Industries of the ancient Egyptians) that, putting oils and fats on the skin and hair was an old custom, still practiced in the Nubia (Sudan). Mentioning kinds of oils, there are many. The castor oil which was used by poor, as Strabo saying, is still being used in Nubian land. Fat and grease were limited in animal fats with added some aromatic materials to conceal nasty odors resulting from ferment of matrial[1]s.

The castor oil is used in present as a medication, and to paint body and hairdressing in the Nuba land.[2]

     The roots of the iris flower was used a perfume in Nubian lands.[3]

     The henna was known by the ancients and is used nowadays, the leaves are dried then mixed in a form of a paste, put on the hands and on the sole and on the nails, painted their hair to look in a dark red color.

Naturon: the naturon was brought in small quantities in 1799 from the naturon well from Sudan. It lies 125 miles east-south of Dongola city (sold by high price, used basically to make snuff). Berkhart wrote, the naturon is of the important imports of Upper Egypt, comes from Darfur)[4].

     The naturon was used in ancient Egypt in the special ceremonies for inaugurating kings and oral cleansing, incense make, industry of glass and might be for making the colored blue and green substance, as it could be made by adding alkaline or without adding it, but, adding it makes it easy its make. Also, used in cooking, in medicine, to whiten the linen and embalming. The naturon was being used in Alexandria in the industry of the glass until 1799.[5]

Incense: this word gives the same meaning of the word perfume, that is the fragrant which is emitted with the smoke of an aromatic material when burned. It is the most common subject that was painted in the temples and graves. The incense and the incense burners had been found in the graves. The incense found by Resner in the graves of the priests of Phil from the Ptolemy era, having the shape of pills. The most important kind and most famous, is kinder”, it is found in Sudan. This kind of frankincense (kinder) is obtained from a tree grows in the east of Sudan near the village of Gallabat[1] and the neighboring areas of Ethiopia, it is the home of kinder. The Nigger tribes were living in the south of Egypt, and this crop reached Egypt by Nubians.[2]

     The lads mentioned in the torah was taken to Egypt from Halfa(Sudan), and that Jacob sent the lads as a gift to his Youssef.[3]

  Resins: it is an organic secretion contains hydrocarbon substances from plants, its uses such varnish and gum. It is an important source of raw materials and the organic composition for perfumes and incense like the bitter frankincense.

     The resins are not produced in Egypt in the present time, moreover, there is a doubt it was ever produced.  It is found in the north of Egypt in the lands bordering the eastern beach of the Mediterranean Sea and south in Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia and east in Arabia. It reached Egypt in the past from these places.[4]

     All the imports were almost from eastern Asia or from Nubia and Sudan. At about the half of the era of the 18th family, started to bring in to Egypt a lot of new materials from Asia. The materials which were brought from Nubia and Sudan or through, were almost the ebony wood, gold, ivory, ostrich feather, leopard skin, the nice-smelling gum resins and fragrant wood.[5]

     Through the presence of these materials we conclude that the ancient Nubians had known the usage of them, as, the presence of these materials had brought to them experience to deal with them. Hence, they have excelled in the usage, the neighboring nations learned the usage of those materials. That is the benefit of the friction of the various civilizations.

Results and recommendations.

results :

  1. The Nubian human being knew civilization in its highest sense since thousands of years.
  2. The Nubians’ Dealing with the makeup is a basic feature indicating the greatness of their civilization.
  3. The Nubians civilization is an extension to itself from the dawn of the history to the Meroitic kingdom civilization till the present era.
  4. The Nubian human being has dealt with the two kinds of the makeup, ornamental and ritualism.
  5. The Nubians made the makeup materials, colors, dyeing, fats and perfumes from the natural materials around him.
  6. The Nubians cared for making the makeup tools, and every person has had his own tools.
  7. The Nubians competed themselves to show the makeup, were proud of it and introduced new materials and new ways in make and usage.


  1. Translation of historical books about the Nubian civilization to the Arabic language to provide knowledge to a large number of Sudanese society members.
  2. Recruitment of researchers and chemical analyzers to study the materials which were used by the Nubians through their successive civilizations in making the makeup in order to identify the materials and proportions.
  3. Deriving  and developing makeup materials from local substances considering the materials used by the Nubians to suit the nature of Sudanese dark skin, both in normal daily life or for works of drama.
  4. Activate the role of the scientific visits to the national museum and the regions of various Nubian monuments for students in the various educational stages to create a kind of a civilization engagement   between the Sudanese human and his far ancient civilization.
  5. Produce specialized dramatic works discussing the Nubian life in its various aspects concentrating on the ancient Nubians’ life.
  6. Establish a theatre and a cinema display unit inside the national museum to display presentations reflecting the greatness of this civilization.
  7. Activate the role of the media agencies (press, magazines, periodicals, broadcasting and television) to shed light on this forgotten civilization in all its sides.
  8. Restoration of antiquities and repairing buildings and pyramids to stay in good condition for the coming generations.
  9. Activate the role of tourism as a great publisher of Sudanese civilization worldwide.

Study the traditions and practices of the current Nubians to discover unknown various styles in order to create a civilization connection for generations


Direct the researchers to concentrate more on the bases upon which the art of makeup and all other arts were developed by the ancients.

Resources & references:

  1. Alfred Lukas, materials and industries of ancient Egyptians, translated by Zaki Eskander & Mohammed Zakaria, reviewed by Abdulhameed Ahmed, the Egyptian book house, Cairo.
  2. A.. J. Arkell, Early Khartoum, Oxford University Press, London, 1949, p..s

            Pictures references:

  1. The Nubians kingdoms on the Nile, Lakaysha est., Barcelona exhibition 2003.
  2. Khartoum national museum.
  3. Museum of the ministry of energy and mining, national commission for geological research.









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