Unmasking ancient aromas: Scientists identify the composition of 2000-year-old Roman perfume

Location of the ancient Roman ointment

Researchers from the University of Cordoba have, for the first time, identified the components of a 2,000-year-old Roman perfume discovered in a sealed vessel in Carmona, Spain. Chemical analysis revealed that the perfume, found in the mausoleum of a wealthy family, was based on olive oil and contained patchouli, a scent of Indian origin previously unknown in Roman times. Credit: Crdoba University

A small jar of ointment discovered in a funerary urn from the ancient Roman city of Carmo, today’s Carmona in the province of Seville, has allowed a research team from the University of Cordoba to chemically unravel the composition of a perfume that dates back to the first century AD

This groundbreaking research, undertaken by the FQM346 team led by organic chemistry professor Jos Rafael Ruiz Arrebola in collaboration with the city of Carmona, marks the first time that the composition of a Roman perfume over 2,000 years old has been identified.

The results were published in the Swiss scientific journal Inheritancein an article in which Ruiz Arrebola, the municipal archaeologist of Carmona, Juan Manuel Romn; and UCO researchers Daniel Cosano and Fernando Lafont share the whole technical and scientific process that allows the world to smell the past Roman Empire.

The residue of the perfume, discovered in 2019 during an archaeological intervention in a mausoleum found during the construction of a house in Calle Sevillat, had been preserved, solidified, inside a vase carved in quartz, which was still perfectly sealed. As Romn explains, it was a collective tomb, perhaps belonging to a wealthy family, and in which, in addition to numerous objects related to the funeral rite (offerings and kits), the cinerary urns of six adults, three women and three men, were found.

In one of the glass urns, above the cremated skeletal remains of the deceased (in this case a woman between the ages of 30 and 40) a cloth bag had been placed (remains have been preserved) containing three grains of amber and a bottle of rock crystal (hyaline quartz), carved in the shape of an amphora, containing ointment.

Perfume containers were once made of blown glass and, on very rare occasions, specimens made with this material have been found which, due to its characteristics and the difficulty of carving, due to its hardness, made them very valuable and extremely expensive. In addition to the uniqueness of the container, the truly extraordinary aspect of the find was that it was perfectly sealed and that the solid residues of the perfume were preserved inside, which allowed this study to be carried out.

Ruiz Arrebola points out that the use of dolomite, a type of carbon, as a cap, and the bitumen used to seal it, were the key to the magnificent state of conservation of the work and its contents.

To ascertain what the perfume was made of, several instrumental techniques were used, such as X-ray diffraction and gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry, among others. According to Ruiz, from the analyzes it was possible to determine that the small cylindrical plug was made of dolomite (limestone), and that bitumen had been used for its perfect adherence and hermetic seal.

As regards the perfume, two components have been identified: a base or binder, which allowed the preservation of the aromas, and the essence itself, findings which agree with the descriptions of none other than Pliny the Elder. In this case the base was a vegetable oil; perhaps, according to some indications reflected in the analysis, olive oil, even if this point cannot be confirmed with certainty.

And the essence?

According to the results of the chemical analyzes carried out by the University of Cordoba, Rome smelled of patchouli, an essential oil obtained from a plant of Indian origin,Pogostemon cabin, widely used in modern perfumery, and whose use in Roman times was not known. The monumental characteristics of the tomb in which it was found and, above all, the material with which the vase that contains it was made, suggest that it was a product of great value.

This study constitutes a turning point in the field of Roman perfumery and as regards the use of patchouli as an essential oil. Further studies are currently underway on other unique materials (such as amber, fabrics and pigments used in wall paintings) preserved in the Carmona mausoleum.

Reference: Archaeometric identification of a Roman-era perfume by Daniel Cosano, Juan Manuel Romn, Fernando Lafont and Jos Rafael Ruiz Arrebola, May 23, 2023, Inheritance.
DOI: 10.3390/heritage6060236


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