What did they smell like in the ancient world?

April 10, 2007 at 3:00 am 18 comments

Flickr photoAlways on the lookout for the curious and interesting, I came across this article in National Geographic. Have you ever wondered how people in the ancient world kept from being on the nose without all our modern day accoutrements like roll-on deodorants and spray on perfumes?

Wonder no more – Italian archaeologists, nosing around on the island of Cyprus, have just announced they have discovered the world’s oldest known perfumes. In a marvellous piece of sychronicity, Cyprus is of course reputed to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, lust and beauty. And perfume of course is closely linked to romance and love.

Remnants of the perfumes were found inside a 3,230m² factory that was part of a larger industrial complex at Pyrgos. An earthquake in 1850 BC shook the factory to the ground, but perfume bottles, mixing jugs and perfume stills were preserved under the collapsed walls.

As someone who has always been on the hunt for that ‘Arabian nights”-style heavy perfume oil that conjures up images of romantic desert nights under the stars (never found BTW: so if you know of one, leave me a comment!) – I was intrigued to know what were the ingredients used to concoct the perfumes.

The team of archaeologists whiffed the perfume remnants and made a study of the remains of the mixing jugs and identified 14 fragrances native to the Mediterranean region used in the perfume production.They found the ancient perfumers used extracts of anise, pine, coriander, bergamot, almond and parsley (not sure about the parsley bit!). They also discovered four fragrance recipes (I sure hope they get clever and find a commercial partner to market them).

The perfumes have now been recreated using techniques described by Pliny the Elder in his writings, which include grinding plants and herbs and mixing these with olive oil, then distilling in a clay apparatus. Lead archaeologist, Maria Rosaria Belgiorno of the National Research Council in Rome, certainly had it right when she said today’s fragrances just don’t compare to the ancient perfume oils: “We have lost the real world of natural fragrances,” she said, “because most of the perfumes of today are chemical reproductions of the natural fragrances and scents.”

Frankly, seems to me we’ve lost a lot in this world, not just the scent of classical perfumes.


Entry filed under: Archaeology, Curiousity, History.

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18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Marcia Elston  |  April 11, 2007 at 10:17 pm

    Perhaps not all is lost . . . natural perfumery is alive and well and artisan natural perfumers are busily creating exquisite scents using essential oils, absolutes, concretes, CO2 extractions, tinctures and infused oils . . . either purchased or made themselves as they hone their craft and share with the world on their blogs. Check out http://artisannaturalperfumers.org/ or join the lively discussion at NaturalPerfumery@yahoogroups.com You’ll find 1,000 professional artisan natural perfumers, natural ingredient suppliers and enthusiasts happily chattering away, sharing ideas, history, sources or anything that might enlighten their peers there. http://www.aromaconnection.org and http://www.cropwatch keep the politico-environmental information at hand for the larger natural aromatic community. We mostly disdain the synthetics and champion renewable natural aromatics in an environment of transparency and sharing.

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  April 11, 2007 at 11:42 pm

    thx for leaving a comment Marcia. Most interesting and I’ll be checking out the sites you mentioned!
    Kim Sbarcea

  • 3. blackincense  |  January 21, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    hello — great topic and I found it by a link sent by a friend who read your article.
    Regarding “Arabian nights” perfumes: you’re right — they are not generally popular, and so most commercial perfumers do not make or sell them. However there are some interesting perfumers from the middle east, who sell online. Many of these fragrances do not contain true oudh, or true amber, but they are very respectable and you might be interested in them. I know of a couple manufacturers from the east, that you might enjoy :

    The aryam, that I linked above, is truly beautiful and worth the money.

    I am a perfumer and I do make 2 “Arabian scents”, but I suspect you are looking for something “native” to the country where it is made. I just wanted to wish you the best and say hello to a fellow Arabian oil lover!

    God bless.

  • 4. thinkingshift  |  January 22, 2009 at 2:26 am

    Hello Blackincense…Your comment is actually very timely. Only a matter of days ago, I found the arabperfumes.com site and was looking at all the wonderful perfume oils, such wonderful colours.
    I will check out the aryam you mentioned. I’m not necessarily looking for a “native” perfume or oil, rather one that has a wonderful blend of warm scents such as sandalwood, amber, pepper and so on.
    Frankly, I wish the “Western world” would “discover” the Arab world’s beautiful scents. That would sure get rid of that hideous laboratory created gardenia smell that seems to be the major note of most Designer Brand perfumes!!

  • 5. blackincense  |  January 22, 2009 at 7:29 am

    Hello Kim!

    I’m glad that what I said “jived”….God bless you!

    I agree with you — I discovered “the desert perfumes” about 10 years ago…I make 2 scents in this style and I am going to be making more in the next couple months.
    I also found this blog recently (it is an extension of a commercial site, but well worth exploring) and you might be interested. I didn’t post it before because I had to log off, research again and find the address:

    They have a blog with lots of good info, as well as articles on oudh. I highly recommend this page, and also I have tried their oudh. It is truly excellent, top of the line and I think you might like it.

    I have a good source for true oudh, and I am experimenting with it, at the moment and hope to release a new Ethiopian based oudh soon.
    God bless and stay in touch, I hope. I enjoy talking “perfume” with other people and I really appreciated reading your refreshing article — I had written a blog entry on a very similar topic (What did 1st century Christians smell like) …

    Best wishes to you,

  • 6. blackincense  |  January 22, 2009 at 7:36 am

    PS : Sorry Kim, they don’t let you “edit” posts…dammit!


    I just received as a gift, and reviewed a new perfume you might be interested in from a natural perfume house designer in Italy.
    The scent is called Hindu Kush. EXCELLENT eastern, byzantine style perfume elixir. Truly a “heaven” scent that is made of “earth”. This is the “feel” of Arabian perfume without all the commercial trappings of Dubai. You would do well to check it out also.

    Blessing to you!

  • 7. thinkingshift  |  January 22, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    Blackincense, I actually think it’s so fascinating to look into the scents and oils of the ancient world. We just don’t produce good perfumes now (I’m talking here about Designer Brand perfumes that are laboratory produced and everyone smells alike. I can pretty well identify any perfume a woman wears these days as it’s all so alike).

    Thank you so much for the 2 links. Loving the name Hindu Kush, that conjures up such images of spices and heavy scents wafting along hot summer winds.

    You’ve said something that I hadn’t thought of – “Arabian perfume without all the commercial trappings of Dubai”. Probably the oils I’ve bought in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are Arabian versions of the Designer brands and therefore not “true” oudhs!

    I will definitely be checking out your oils and the links you sent me. I will be doing a post soon on a new perfume I’ve found from a Swiss perfume maker. Not Arabian oils but a perfume maker who I think is exceptional.

    Keep in touch!

  • 8. blackincense  |  January 23, 2009 at 4:22 am

    Hello again Kim!

    You’re absolutely correct. Nobody in Dubai or even Saudi Arabia really sells true oudh — well, I guess I should say almost nobody. True oudh is so hard to find and most of what comes from there, although mimics the scents of the former glory of Arabia , is not truly oudh. Very good synthetics and good copies, but not the real thing. http://www.oriscent.com, which I noted in the last post, is one of the few producers of true oudh anymore. It’s still possible to find very fine copies though, and I don’t think they should be overlooked just because they are not “natural”. Obviously, the cheap stuff should go in the trash, but there are some very good synthetics that are very affordable and very nice! They’re just not used properly in the west.

    I agree with you that the west has not produced a true perfume for a very long time…at least since the 1920’s or 30’s. After the 2 world war, it was just not part of the post modern world. Russia stopped making true perfume oils immediately after the Bolshevik revolution, and so other Balkan countries soon followed suit. The Greeks still make true Byzantine scents but they are not generally available outside of Greece, and the small perfume houses.

    I’m sick of the funeral gardenias too, but I’m just as sick of the Britney Spears vanilla….LOL!!! 🙂

    Best wishes Kim !
    Do stay in touch and let me know how you like the perfume you mentioned from Switzerland, or post a review. Would love to read it!


  • 9. thinkingshift  |  January 23, 2009 at 8:27 am

    Hello Suzanne
    Glad to have found a fellow perfume lover! Some of the great perfumes are gone eg Zibilene by Weil (they make a less fantastic version now). It is getting very hard for me to get Narcisse Noir by Caron. I do like the Serge Lutens perfumes, especially Ambre Sultan and Frederic Malle’s Noir Epices.

    I had no idea that true oudhs were not sold in Dubai etc. A huge eye-opener for me and thx for telling me. I will be checking out the links you gave me in my search for authentic oudhs!
    And thx for the info on the carrier oils too.
    I’ll be doing my perfume post soon. I’ll review the perfume I found – I’ve been trialling it for a week now and ready to call it!

  • 10. Mumena  |  February 27, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    Thank you for the link to http://www.arabperfumes.com
    I bought the Queen of the Desert . The oil based perfume was superb.

    The fragrance was out of this world.


  • 11. thinkingshift  |  February 28, 2009 at 1:50 am

    Hi Mumena, well I actually haven’t tried Queen of the Desert myself. But your comment has me intrigued! I will get a bottle. Thx for letting me know.

  • 12. Helen  |  February 28, 2009 at 8:54 am

    Hi Mumena,

    Just got paid, thinking of purchasing the above oil based perfume. It’s a little expensive for me are you sure the fragrance is good as you say?


  • 13. thinkingshift  |  February 28, 2009 at 9:24 am

    I just had a look at it Helen http://www.arabperfumes.com/ProductView.aspx?param=bPGnUl%2fdVpvfiC45Vv6QmbUX3VOYpZid7yDau3VGiRyWA20PP0R6NOmy9IQ6vGqx
    because I’m tempted myself. £190.00 is a lot to pay.
    Did you see my review of a fabulous perfume I just found and bought?

    a lot cheaper. And if you’re looking for that Moroccan-style exotic scent, well this is it.

  • 14. Mumena  |  February 28, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    Hi Helen,
    My friend came a cross a discount code AVS196.
    Email order@arabperfumes.com and see if it works for you.

    I paid £ 130.

    I also bought 1000 Flower and Elegance. The fragrance is truly beautiful.

    Good luck

  • 15. Helen  |  February 28, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Hi Mumena

    The code works!!

    I’m very excited i hope it’s good as you say. I’ve also gone for the 1000 Flower.


  • 16. thinkingshift  |  February 28, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Well Mumema, thx for pointing Helen to the code. Helen: please pop back on & tell us what you think of the oil when you get it.

  • 17. Woody3d  |  December 12, 2009 at 10:49 am


  • 18. thinkingshift  |  December 13, 2009 at 3:57 am

    Woody3d…I’m off this week to check out Tom Ford’s scents at a department store here. I’ll be taking your suggestions with me.


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