History of Beeswax

Sep 21, 2017

A Brief History of Beeswax

Beeswax has been around for centuries and is the oldest known wax; however, a new study has found evidence of Neolithic farmers using beeswax as far back as 9,000 years to the 7000BCE.   There is no proof whether the farmers were beekeeping or if they were simply exploiting products from the wild hives.

An international research team led by the School of Chemistry from the University of Bristol, United Kingdom examined lipid residues preserved in more than 6,400 pottery artefacts (from the oldest  cultures) found in archaeological sites, that existed back in the Neolithic period from regions of Near East (Western Asia), Europe and North Africa that make up Anatolia (modern-day Turkey).

The honeybees produced beeswax made up of complex lipids that lead to a unique chemical signature, similar to a fingerprint. These compounds were also largely resistant to degradation and could be recognised even after thousands of years. They found beeswax in more than 80 fragments of pottery investigated.  Beeswax residue on pottery could be the result of cooking or sweetening their food with honey or from processing wax combs. 

Archaeologists actually have no way of knowing how far back in time beekeeping began as there is no fossil record for the honeybee.

Beeswax has been used by many cultures for a variety of uses;

In ancient Egyptian Times the Egyptians recognised the value of beeswax and it was used in everyday life for sealing things, such as coating the inside of wine amphora’s, making amulets, covering writing tablets and even for waxing wigs to give permanence to plaits. It has been found in the tombs of Egypt where it had a few uses such as being used for embalming, for mummification of their pharaohs and even as a sealing wax to seal the coffin. 

Development of candles;

As far as candles are concerned, they have been used for light for more than 5,000 years, however little is known about how it all began. The ancient Egyptians allegedly created the first candle, however it is noted that they used rush lights or torches made by soaking the pithy core of reeds in melted animal fat. They were not classed as a true candle due to having no wick.

By 3,000 B.C.  The Egyptians were using wicked candles but the credit went to the ancient Romans for developing the wicked candle before that time. They dipped rolled papyrus repeatedly in melted tallow (made from the fat of animals such as sheep or cows) or beeswax. This invention was a breakthrough in this era as the candles were the main source of artificial light used in their mud brick homes.  The Egyptians were highly religious people and candles have always played a major part in religious ceremonies and rituals.

The ancient Romans

The ancient Romans were honoured by having statues made of themselves. These statues were made from beeswax. They also wore death masks made from beeswax.

The ancient Greeks

The ancient Greeks invented Encaustic paintings, which is hot beeswax mixed with pigments, applied in liquid form to a surface such as prepared wood or canvas.  The oldest surviving encaustic panel paintings are the Romano- Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits from the 1st Century BC.

From 500 AD to 1500 AD in Medieval European times, the main source of lighting hadn’t evolved much, and still people relied on fires, torches, oil lamps and tallow candles.  This was a time of castles, peasants, guilds, monasteries, cathedrals and crusades.  Christianity in the middle ages dominated the lives of both peasants and the nobility.  The Roman Church became dominant in Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman Catholic Church controlled everything – religion, morals, politics and education. The only religion recognized was Christianity and specifically Catholicism.  At the height of the middle ages, candle making became an occupation and they began to organize themselves into guilds, which became known as the chandler guild. There were two guilds for chandlers – beeswax chandlers and tallow chandlers. Back in those days, candle making was a messy process and took a lot of work, so it was much easier for people to purchase them, rather than to make them. The Church, King and the Nobles were the primary patrons of the beeswax candles and usage was reserved for the rich as these candles were so luxurious.  Beeswax was abundant and could be used for trading and accepted as payment for paying tax. The peasants could only afford tallow candles.

During the 18th century the whaling industry was growing rapidly, and the sperm whale was used for its spermaceti which is a waxy substance found in the head cavities of the sperm whale. This wax became a popular substance for candle making especially as the odour was a huge improvement from tallow candles.

Candle technology began to advance over the century with the use of machines to mass produce candles. The manufacture of candles became an industrialised mass market. A new, cheaper wax such as paraffin was invented and the wicks also had a makeover to improve them so that they would burn more efficiently. 

The electric light was invented in 1835 with an arc lamp, but it took over 40 years before it could be perfected and the incandescent light bulb was finally commercialized in 1880.  For over a decade, Thomas Edison constantly strived to improve the light bulb, however great progress was made in the 20th century.  Moving into the 21st century and the lightbulb will soon be a thing of the past due to the ever evolving lighting technology.

As candles were no longer needed for lighting in the dark, the industry suffered and began to decline, so changes had to be made and they became marketed for décor purposes. They came in different shapes, sizes and colours and even had scent added to them.

Beeswax in today’s society has many uses other than candle making.  It can be used for waterproofing, pharmaceuticals and also in skincare due to its antibacterial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. Swapping commercial products containing harsh chemicals for toxic free products is not only environmentally friendly but a step forward to better health and harmony.