You too can have an ass like Cleopatra


@Simon_Perry on Twitter has poin­ted out a web­site of someone who’s a rather aggress­ive sales­man. I’ve had to hand in my Pedantry badge that I earned in the cub scouts because my first reac­tion was that the cham­pagne vin­egar in this facecream isn’t likely to be nat­ural. This is miss­ing the point because as far as I can tell noth­ing sold by Totally Natural Skincare is totally nat­ural. But there is a gem among the junk.

Skimmed milk product by Totally Natural Skincare

Cleopatras bath milk
Used by Cleopatra, except she used asses milk! A beau­ti­ful sooth­ing and relax­ing bath milk which nour­ishes the skin and releases its floral oils and cocoa but­ter in the warmth of the bath leav­ing you smooth as silk. This Bath milk also con­tains our own rose petal soap. thus cleanses as well as moisturising.

As sales pitches go Used by Cleopatra, except she used asses milk! is a clas­sic — and not just because the product includes cocoa (from the Americas). You need to think about what bathing in asses milk means.

Amanda Barrie gives the defin­it­ive per­form­ance of Cleopatra in Carry on Cleo

To be hon­est, I don’t know where the idea that Cleopatra bathed in asses’ milk came from. There’s no con­tem­por­ary source that I know of that says it. Pliny the Elder writ­ing around a cen­tury later said that women bathed their cheeks in it seven times a day to remove wrinkles. The key bit is “Poppaea hoc Neronis prin­cipis instituit, bal­nearum quoque solia sic tem­per­ans…” Natural History 28.183. Pliny says that Poppaea, wife of Nero first did this, and even filled her bath-tubs with the milk.

Nero was not fondly remembered by the Roman élite after he died, and neither was Poppaea. By say­ing that Poppaea intro­duced the prac­tice, Pliny is not just say­ing it’s some­thing that extremely vain people would do. Nero and Poppaea were con­sidered moral dregs. The fact that Poppaea used whole baths of the stuff high­lights her extra­vag­ant and waste­ful nature. Even though the élites were wealthy, the pur­suit and flaunt­ing of wealth on per­sonal effects was con­sidered effem­in­ate and unRo­man. Instead Romans were sup­posed to flash their cash by put­ting on events for the the people, or build­ing pub­lic works. If as part of those works, they had to have grand vil­las and employ the best sculptors to fur­nish them, then that was the way life went.

Cassius Dio (62.28) was scath­ing of Poppaea’s pur­suit of luxury:

The extremes of lux­ury indulged in by this Sabina (Poppaea) O will indic­ate in the briefest terms. She cause gil­ded shoes to be put on the mules that drew her and caused five hun­dred asses that had recently foaled to be milked daily that she might bathe in their milk. For she bestowed the greatest pains on the beauty and bril­liancy of her per­son, and this is why, when she noticed in a mir­ror one day that her appear­ance was not comely, she prayed that she might die before she passed her prime.

So if Poppaea inven­ted the milk bath, why is it asso­ci­ated with Cleopatra?

Egypt was wealthy because of its agri­cul­ture. It was pres­ti­gi­ous due to the antiquity of its civil­isa­tion. So the Romans had to find a flaw in Egypt to jus­tify their rule. The flaw was in the moral char­ac­ter of its rulers. By say­ing Cleopatra bathed in asses milk, the later authors were say­ing some­thing about the cor­rupt nature of the last of the Pharaohs. By asso­ci­ation Mark Anthony’s rela­tion­ship with Cleopatra sul­lied him. Bathing in asses milk might have said some­thing about Cleopatra’s beauty, but it was some­thing along the lines of “She was beau­ti­ful, just like a pros­ti­tute with plenty of make-up.”

So while Totally Natural Skincare aren’t say­ing this product isn’t exactly the same as used by Cleopatra, they’re imply­ing it’ll have the same effect. Buy their products and you too can be just like an ancient whore.

Incidentally, if you’ve ever thought that bathing in asses’ milk doesn’t sound prac­tical, you’re prob­ably right. Seneca writ­ing in the Controversiae recor­ded that brothels stank. Not just because of the cos­met­ics, but also from the cheap per­fume used to try and hide the smell.

Crowdsourcing Fieldwork: A Neuroarchaeology Project?

How should an exhibit be lit?

How should an exhibit be lit?

This is a devel­op­ment of an idea I had last year after read­ing a post by Christina on a visit to the National Museum in Copenhagen. In short most museums I go to seem to have much darker gal­ler­ies for pre­his­toric mater­ial that clas­sical mater­ial. That has to have a psy­cho­lo­gical effect, but does it also have a physiolo­gical effect? Is the dif­fer­ence in light enough that there’s a dif­fer­ence feel­ing to observing pre­his­toric mater­ial to clas­sical mater­ial because of the room and not the con­tent? You could also ask sim­ilar ques­tions of European and Rest of the World exhib­its. Are African exhib­its in more dimly lit rooms, and if so what does this say about ‘world museums’.

It should be an easy enough ques­tion to answer; simply visit a range of museums in exotic loc­a­tions with a light-meter and then number-crunch to find the answer. That’s not very effi­cient though. It means arran­ging per­mis­sions, trav­el­ling to the museums, and log­ging the data. It could take three or four days in terms of travel to some places to log 50 num­bers. When it comes to num­ber crunch­ing more is bet­ter so is there a way round this? I sup­pose I could hire people to wander round museums for me with light­meters, but that would be expens­ive and my bank is already exper­i­ment­ing with new shades of red to print my bal­ance. It’d be handy if I could just find the data I want lying around the net some­where. Regular read­ers will know I’ve been think­ing about Flickr’s API a lot, and they won’t be sur­prised to hear that’s where I might have found the answer. A lot of people have been tak­ing pho­tos in museums and I think they could help.

It might sound bleed­ing obvi­ous that all of Flickr’s pho­tos were taken with a cam­era, but in the case of digital cam­eras Flickr can also store a lot more data. Attached to a lot of the pho­tos is EXIF data. If you visit a photo like this one, you’ll see there’s a more prop­er­ties link on the right side of the page. That takes you to a page like this one. It tells you the ISO set­ting, aper­ture and shut­ter speed for a photo. ((Usually — HDR pho­tos won’t because the have mul­tiple expos­ures)) If the cam­era is auto­matic then it will pick what it thinks are the best set­tings. The cam­era is set to manual, then the pho­to­grapher is still prob­ably going to choose what it thinks are the best set­tings. Therefore this gives a way to cal­cu­late rel­at­ive changes in light.

For example ISO set­tings come from the days when people used film for pho­tos. ISO 200 would react to light one ‘stop’ faster than ISO 100. ISO 400 was one stop faster than ISO 200 and two than ISO 100. So the ISO set­ting will let us cal­cu­late how many stops down the film speed is. The aper­ture is an odd scale because it relates to the size of the aper­ture of the lens rel­at­ive to the focal length. But it can be cal­cu­lated, f/22 is a stop up from  f/16 and f/11 is another stop down and so on. The same can be said for shut­ter speed You can go from 1/800 to 1/400 to 1/200 and so on.

Therefore, if you fix a datum you can meas­ure how many stops up or down from that datum a photo is from the EXIF data. This is related to the light in the image and the cam­era lens look­ing into a gal­lery or dis­play is a proxy for the human eye. It’s not per­fect, you’d want a lot of pho­tos but one thing Flickr has is a LOT of pho­tos. It also has the API, which makes it very easy to trans­fer the rel­ev­ant meta-data into a data­base for interrogation.

One reason I’m inter­ested in doing this pro­ject is that I have no idea what the res­ult would be. It could be emphatic, ambigu­ous or show that I have a very select­ive memory when it comes to light­ing. It might sound obvi­ous that you’d want to research some­thing you don’t know the answer to, but to gain fund­ing you have to show a like­li­hood of a pos­it­ive out­come — or that the meth­od­o­logy is at least sound. I don’t know if this is the case, so the pro­ject won’t attract fund­ing, but the API makes it cheap. Certainly cheaper than fly­ing on budget air­lines round Europe.

In terms of pub­lic­a­tion it seems like a good fit for Internet Archaeology. Internet Archaeology is mov­ing in steps towards open access. Given the… umm… eccent­ric atti­tude the AHRC takes to digital media, and the cur­rent eco­nomic cli­mate that’s a dif­fi­cult move they’re mak­ing. The fact they are mov­ing to Open Access makes it one of the most attract­ive ven­ues to pub­lish in aca­demic archae­ology. In this instance a data­base which can link back to the source files at Flickr would fit neatly into their hyperlink-friendly model. A bit of ingenu­ity with the SQL quer­ies and data­base fields and it should be pos­sible to make it a use­ful applic­a­tion for fur­ther research.

The biggest prob­lem I see at the moment is whether or not estim­at­ing rel­at­ive light levels from the ISO, aper­ture and shut­ter speed will be enough to dis­tin­guish between genu­ine dif­fer­ences in light­ing. There are other non-trivial ques­tions. If pho­tos are of the exhib­its rather than the gal­ler­ies, then will the arti­fi­cial light neg­ate any meas­ur­able dif­fer­ences? It would cer­tainly lose dark­ness in the peri­pheral vis­ion. How do I gather the data? Can I pull it straight from the EXIF files from any photo on the site, but would this be reas­on­able if the photo itself is set to copy­right? Would set­ting up a Flickr group for the pro­ject and try­ing to herd in volun­teers, or stick­ing to CC licenced pho­tos be better?

I think I could prob­ably set up a small-scale test of this over the autumn and then take it from there, Still, it would be help­ful if someone could spot all the flaws in this plan for me, rather than leav­ing me to stumble into them, so feel free to leave your com­ments below.