An ancient find, a modern quest - beauty in a jar

When archaeologists in London unearthed a small copper box dating from Roman times, they expected to find a jewel or votive offering inside.

But when they gathered at the Museum of London last week to open the tin, they made a surprising discovery: It contains what they think could be face cream. It even bears the finger marks of the woman who used it nearly 2,000 years ago.

Although archaeological digs have yielded makeup jars before, this is reportedly the first time the contents have outlasted the centuries.

In an age when cosmetics represent a $20 billion-plus industry in the United States, there is something oddly appealing about this find. It serves as a reminder that the business of beauty goes back thousands of years. Vanity is hardly a modern invention. The Roman poet Ovid wrote about beauty regimens, including toners and herbal mixes. And Cleopatra of Egypt took honey and milk baths to maintain a youthful appearance.

If Cleopatra and the Roman woman with the ancient face cream could visit a 21st-century cosmetics counter, what amazing choices they would find. As fragrances waft through the air, sales clerks extol the virtues of moisturizers, concealers, exfoliants, and antiaging creams. They are selling dreams that a dab of moisturizer, a puff of powder, a splash of perfume will produce a transformation. If beauty is more than skin deep, you wouldn't know it here.

With enough money and the right products, marketers suggest, wrinkles, dark circles, puffiness, and cellulite can all disappear. No wonder "makeover" is such a tantalizing word, with its implied promise of a new beginning.

Still, all these choices are enough to send some shoppers fleeing. Well-polished clerks, with their perfectly lined lips, mascaraed lashes, lacquered nails, and sleek hair, can unwittingly make customers feel like plain Janes, shriveling in their presence. No wonder some quicken their steps as they pass by, avoiding eye contact lest clerks ambush them with perfume or invite them for a "consultation." Thanks, but not today.

Yet however intimidating this fantasyland might be, there is something touching about it, too, with its mix of earnest clerks and hopeful customers.

The fantasyland also has its comic elements and its own lingo. Ads and labels refer to mysterious-sounding "optical diffusers," "dermo-crease reducers," "comedogenicity-tested" products, and "lipolytic-blended" plant extracts. And then there are the euphemisms. Clerks, careful not to offend the over-35 crowd, describe products as "good for maturing skin." Translation: You've lost that dewy look.

When the Roman woman smoothed on face cream and checked for wrinkles, she had only highly polished disks of metal as rudimentary mirrors. Today we catch our reflections everywhere - in high-magnification mirrors at home, in visor mirrors in cars, even in store windows. There is no escaping our images. No wonder beauty has become an equal-opportunity business as cosmetics for men gain popularity.

"Hope in a jar" is the way Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, once described a new face cream. What else but hope could persuade customers to part with $500 for a 1.7-ounce jar of La Prairie's Cellular Radiance Cream? (Modern shoppers can only wonder what the Roman woman paid for her face cream.)

Someday, when archaeologists of the future unearth the pastel-colored cosmetics jars of 21st-century shoppers, they may speculate about the contents. But no amount of laboratory analysis will reveal that invisible ingredient, hope.

Even if modern-day Cleopatras find the perfect lipstick or the silkiest moisturizer, nothing fundamental really changes. And if the perfect product eludes them? No matter. Soon store displays will fill with new potions, new promises. Some days, simply the dream of change is enough.

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