All archaeological finds are invaluable, yet some are more priceless than others. Some tell stories so ancient yet so familiar that we can’t help but smile as we realize how little some things have changed these past thousands of years.
Like the ancient Egyptians, the Romans took their funerary practices seriously lest the dead remain eternally trapped in uneventful purgatory. A by-the-book funeral could consist of five parts, starting with a procession and ending with a grand feast to ensure the departed’s successful voyage to the immortal domain. Afterward, Romans celebrated the dead during specified “holidays,” kind of like Mexico’s famed Day of the Dead.
Strangely enough, gravesites throughout the Roman world often surrendered vaselike sculptures called unguentaria. According to legend, they held the tears of family members grieving over the departed, although that appears to be a romantic myth. It’s now generally agreed that unguentaria—“unguent” meaning “ointment”—stored perishable goods for the living rather than commemorations for the dead.
Unguentaria served as old-timey equivalents of plastics, and the specimens unearthed contained cosmetics or fragrances. In his terrestrial treatise, Natural History, Pliny the Elder records that Romans preferred scents of marjoram, roses, and saffron. He also said that the women of the house utilized as many beauty products as women do today, including lotions for soft, smooth skin.