By Patricia Reaney
London - When it comes to cosmetics, the ancient Romans knew what they were doing.
Scientists have unearthed a small tin canister dating back to the middle of the second century in an excavated Roman temple precinct in London that contains a sophisticated white cream that could rival today's top cosmetics.
"It is quite a complicated little mixture," Richard Evershed, an analytical chemist at the University of Bristol in south-western England, said on Wednesday.
"Perhaps they didn't understand the chemistry of everything but they obviously knew what they were doing."
The pot, measuring 60mm x 52mm, is thought to be the only Roman tin of cream of its kind to be found intact and in such good condition.
It was discovered in a waterlogged ditch preserved under wooden planks in thick layers of mud.
The scientists, who reported the findings in the journal Nature, think the whitish cream was probably worn by fashionable Roman women. A fair complexion was popular in Roman times, according to the researchers.
"We're speculating that it would have been some sort of foundation cream," Evershed added.
The cream consists of about 40 percent animal fat - most likely from sheep or cattle - 40 percent starch and tin oxide. The fat forms the creamy base and the tin oxide makes the mixture opaque white.
"As far as I can tell, the tin oxide was quite inert so it wouldn't cause any dermatological problems," said Evershed.
Francis Grew, of the Museum of London, said both the tin and its contents were of very high quality.
"The cosmetic trade seems to have ranged in Roman times from a sort of home-spun type of thing... to a sophisticated level," he said.
Evershed said: "It gives us yet another insight into the sophisticated way in which our ancestors used materials from their environment. This is an ancient technology and one that doesn't differ so much from some of the cosmetic technologies in use today."