Uncovering the secrets of healthcare in the ancient world


Dr Jane Draycott, a lecturer at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, has received a prestigious Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Science in Culture Early Career Developmental Award. The Award is for the joint project “From natural resources to packaging, an interdisciplinary study of skincare products over time”, with researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Nottingham.

The project aims to rediscover ingredients used for skincare in past societies and recreate ancient skincare products using natural resources. The project will ask a range of questions including exploring how people maintained their health and wellbeing in antiquity; whether contemporary skin conditions can be treated with ancient remedies and how the Egyptian queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra have been used to market modern day skincare remedies.

Co-operating on the project are Dr Thibaut Deviese from the University of Oxford and Dr Szu Shen Wong from the University of Nottingham.

“The project will research the way that natural ingredient like plants and minerals were utilized in antiquity,” says Dr Draycott.

“It will look at how eighteenth and nineteenth century skincare remedies looked back to ancient practices and made use of them, or used them in marketing strategies. We’ll be looking at ancient figures like Cleopatra and Nefertiti and how these figures were used to market products.

“Ancient literature will be studied to find the actual recipes that were recorded, we’ll also be looking at the ancient archaeological remains of these remedies. We will be looking to see if any of these ancient remedies could be utilized today to help contemporary skin conditions. Hopefully, we will rediscover some useful remedies and be able to develop those further.”

This project also involves looking at collections from the Boots Archive and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Library and Museum to identify natural skincare ingredients from antiquity to the modern period, as well as the packaging and advertisement of skincare products in the modern period. The information on these natural substances will then be used to recreate and re-formulate skincare products made of natural ingredients for the pharmaceutical industry and the knowledge of the general public.

The project will culminate with a public exhibition that will take place at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum.

Dr Draycott continues: “There is certainly an increase in interest in health and wellbeing; people are interested in eating well and exercising. With contemporary pressures on the NHS for example, people are being encouraged to take better care of themselves. I think there are lessons to be learned from looking at how people in the past managed without a health service like the NHS, how they maintained their health and wellbeing under very difficult circumstances.”

In a separate project, Dr Draycott is also looking at the use of prosthetics in ancient Greece and Rome.

“With regard to prostheses, in the contemporary world, a prosthesis is an artificial device that replaces a missing body part, generally designed and assembled according to the individual’s appearance and functional needs, with a view to being both as unobtrusive and as useful as possible.

“There has been a big increase in the use of prostheses since the start of the War on Terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. With huge developments in battlefield medicine, soldiers are now surviving the loss of not just one limb, but potentially three. Again, it’s interesting to learn how people in antiquity dealt with the loss of limbs, they didn’t have modern surgery or any of the rehabilitation programmes we have today, they had to look after themselves.”

With the possibility of discovering new approaches to maintaining health and wellbeing, new attitudes with regard to prostheses along with rediscovering ancient skincare regimes, the lessons are there to be learned from our ancestors. With Dr Draycott’s research, a new discovery may be just around the corner.

Note to Editor

  1. For more information please contact Sara Jones, PR and Communications Officer, on 01267 225 108 / 07449 998 478 or via email at sara.f.jones@uwtsd.ac.uk