Perfume from the ancient Orient to the Roman empire

Madder, Rubia tinctorumToday was the last lecture in a series of four lectures, connected to the Glass in antiquity exhibition; on the last day of that exhibition.

This one was not really about the glass vessels themselves, but about their contents; like perfume, balm, or wine.

The lecture was by Ruurd Halbertsma of the Greco-Roman department of the museum.

Introducing Dr Halbertsma, the director of the museum said that, while preparing the vessels for the exhibition, in some of them substances were found which might be ancient and interesting.

However, it turned one of those had been used for an olive oil ad ten years ago.

In the other ones, the substance proved to be sand.

Perfume, Dr Halbertsma said, played a big role in economies and societies of antiquity.

It was linked, eg, to the importance of bodily care in Roman culture.

The Romans had thermae for bathing built all over their empire, and vessels of perfume went along to them.

Cosmetics played a big role in antiquity.

Some people had their faces bleached with white-lead, to show off that they did not have to work in the blazing sun.

Malachite was used for black lines around the eyes.

Fragmented pumice was used for brushing teeth.

Perfume had various functions.

First, in religions.

The images of deities were often anointed.

During ceremonies, the faithful were often anointed.

The dead were often embalmed, like in ancient Egyptian mummies.

Second, in medicine.

Oil, perfume, were often used as medicine.

Third, for cosmetics.

When this cosmetic use is stressed especially, it may pass into category four: seduction.

Especially this fourth category brought perfume much opposition from moralist authors, religions, and governments.

There was no distilled alcohol in antiquity.

Most perfume was based on olive oil.

As much perfume would look brownish, so not very attractive, various substances were added to colour it.

Including Rubia tinctorum for a red colour.

This blog will go on with the other parts of Dr Halbertsma’s lecture on perfume; so, stay tuned.

9 thoughts on “Perfume from the ancient Orient to the Roman empire

  1. Mar 26, 5:14 PM EDT

    Rome show features ancient perfumes

    Associated Press Writer

    ROME (AP) — It’s a rare chance to smell the scent of ancient history – typically a mix of natural spices and olive oil – thanks to an exhibit in Rome featuring fragrances from the world’s oldest known perfume factory.

    On display are four perfumes recreated by a team of archaeologists from 14 original fragrances dating from 4,000 years ago. Digging at the Pyrgos-Mavroraki site in Cyprus, they turned up a complex believed to have been used as a perfume lab.

    The archaeologists used fragrances extracted from traces left in containers at the site to recreate ancient aromas with the same techniques used in the past, said Maria Rosaria Belgiorno, the leading archaeologist who discovered the factory in 2003.

    “Today, we are used to chemical and alcoholic scents, but these are fresher ones, smelling of herbs and spices, like almond, coriander, myrtle, conifer resin, bergamot – and not flowers,” said Belgiorno, who is also the curator of the exhibit at Rome’s Capitoline Museums.

    The perfumes were made through the lengthy steeping of the spices in water and oil and other ancient techniques, she told The Associated Press.

    The perfumes – named for the Greek goddesses Hera, Athena, Aphrodite and Artemis – are displayed behind glass, with a lid that visitors can lift up to smell the fragrances. Alongside are 60 items, including amphorae, jugs, grinders and distilling equipment, discovered at the site some 60 miles southwest of Nicosia.

    While perfumes and ointments have been found in tombs in Egypt and Mesopotamia, Belgiorno said this was a rare case where an entire factory dedicated to making perfume was found.

    The 42,300-square-foot lab, believed to have been destroyed in an earthquake in antiquity, is exceptionally well-preserved, Belgiorno said, and shows that making perfume was a serious business. The 2000 B.C. complex included an olive press room, areas dedicated to the working and refining of copper, and five 106- to 132-gallon oil-storage containers. It employed dozens of people, show organizers said.

    Throughout the Bronze Age and into the 1st millennium B.C., Cyprus played a key role in copper and olive oil production and trade. Olive oil was used as a base for medicine, cosmetics and perfume, some of which were exported, mainly to Greece.

    “The Perfumes of Aphrodite and the Secret of Oil” exhibit, which opened March 14, runs through Sept. 2.

    © 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved


  2. I’m in California and am in the rose nursery business. Part of our spring events is picking and distilling roses for the oil/rose water. I like to discuss history of distillation and perfumes based on rose oil. The Cyprus distillery is interesting in that scents of the time were recreated. I would like to buy some samples so my guests can smell what ancient scents were like. Any suggestions?


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