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 AD 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, told Reuters on Wednesday.

"Perhaps they didn't understand the chemistry of everything but they obviously knew what they were doing."

The pot, measuring 2.4 x 2 inches, 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.

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