Perfumes from the days of Cleopatra might be re-created
07. 12. 2021
How did the ancient people obtain, combine and preserve the scents of plants? What perfumes did they make of them? Although only little remains of the ancient knowledge, a scientist wants to experimentally reconstruct the process of preparing several ancient Greco-Egyptian perfumes. Together with a team of historians, Egyptologists, philologists and organic chemists, they are going to revive some of the scents used in the antiquity.
“The art of the ancient Egyptian and Greek perfumery has mostly not survived,” says Sean Coughlin. A researcher from the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS) already participated in reviving an ancient Egyptian perfume so he is no stranger to the field.
“We know roughly what scents these perfumes contained—scents like myrrh, cinnamon, cardamom, and terebinth—but we know far less about how they were made or why they were made exactly in that way,” says Sean Coughlin. Together with colleagues from various fields, he started a project called Alchemies of Scent. It aims to bring some of the ancient smells back to life.
Sean Coughlin from the Institute of Philosophy of the CAS
“One of the main sources of perfume recipes are ancient Greek medical texts, especially the pharmacological ones,” the researcher explains. Along with the ancient records, knowledge of modern chemistry is also required to study the ancient perfume-making methods.
Perfumery as the ancestor of modern chemistry
The earliest recorded chemical procedure was found on a clay tablet written around 1200 BC in Babylonia, which describes a process of making a perfume. Its author, a woman named Tapputi, is the first documented chemist in the human history. The table also illustrates the need for chemists on the Alchemies of Scent’s team.
Perfumery, like alchemy, was an art of transmutation, where oil or fat was meant to change and take on the essence and scent of something else. These scents were also used to cure diseases and perform magic rituals.
Mendesian perfume recipe, preserved in an 11th century Greek medical manuscript kept in the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy. Manuscript Laurenziana Plutei 74.02, fol. 370v.
“Perfumes were often considered more like medicines and were used as a form of aromatherapy. They were made mostly by the same merchants who made the medicines,” adds Sean Coughlin.
They were also economically important. Egyptian perfumes became incredibly popular in the ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed, in the Roman Empire, many books of cosmetic recipes for perfume and scented soaps were marketed with Cleopatra's name.
At the same time, perfumery involved a range of expertise besides chemistry: biology and botany, and also psychology and natural philosophy.
Ancient fragrances today
The team behind the Alchemies of Scent wants to experimentally revive one ancient smell, like Stakte, Mendesion, Metopion, Susinum or a ‘smoke perfume’, in each of the following five years.
Replicating the Mendesian perfume (counterclockwise from top left): a measuring cylinder with desert date oil (Balanites aegyptiaca), mortar and pestle, myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), pine resin (Pinus sp.), cinnamon cassia quills, completed perfume in a flask.
In addition to the actual production processes, they will also focus on how the people from Alexander the Great to Cleopatra VII (4th–1st century BC) understood those processes, how they passed them on, and thus, how they influenced natural philosophy, medicine, as well as art and culture at large.
Experts also promise to prepare dictionaries, recipes, manuals or even some public perfume-making workshops.
Text: Eliška Zvolánková, Division of External Relations, CAS Centre of Administration and Operations
Photo: Shutterstock; Jana Říhová, Sean Coughlin, Institute of Philosophy of the CAS
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The Czech Academy of Sciences (the CAS)
The mission of the CAS
The primary mission of the CAS is to conduct research in a broad spectrum of natural, technical and social sciences as well as humanities. This research aims to advance progress of scientific knowledge at the international level, considering, however, the specific needs of the Czech society and the national culture.
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Prof. Eva Zažímalová has started her second term of office in May 2021. She is a respected scientist, and a Professor of Plant Anatomy and Physiology.
She is also a part of GCSA of the EU.