Spain, for the first time in history identified the composition of a Roman perfume

In Spain, for the first time in history, it has been discovered what the Romans smelled like: the chemical composition of the exceptionally preserved remains (again, perhaps for the first time) of a perfume has been identified. And Rome smelled like. patchouli.

What perfume did the ancient Romans wear? We have been given so many containers, such as balsam jars and ointment jars, that were used to hold products with which the Romans perfumed themselves, but their contents had never reached us. Now, however, a group of Spanish researchers can answer the question, because they have discovered what they know is the earliest surviving Roman perfume from antiquity. Or at any rate, it is certainly the first time the composition of a 2,000-year-old Roman perfume has been identified.

The discovery dates back to 2019 but the scientific results were only published this year, in an article in the Swiss scientific journal Heritage signed by the four authors of the discovery (Daniel Cosano, Juan Manuel Román, Fernando Lafont and José Rafael Ruiz Arrebola). The perfume remains were in an urn found in an archaeological excavation at the mausoleum in Carmona , Spain (the ancient Roman city of Carmo), and researchers from the University of Córdoba, led by Organic Chemistry professor José Rafael Ruiz Arrebola, in collaboration with the Carmona municipality, were able to chemically describe the true components of a first-century perfume. The remains appeared solidified inside a quartz container, still perfectly sealed. As Román explains, the urn was in a collective burial, possibly belonging to a family with high purchasing power, in which, in addition to numerous objects related to the funerary ritual (offerings and trousseau), the funerary urns of six adult individuals, three women and three men, were found. In one of the urns, made of glass, above the remains of the deceased, in this case a woman between 30 and 40 years old, a cloth bag (the remains of which were preserved) had been deposited containing three amber beads and a small bottle (an unguentarium) of rock crystal (hyaline quartz) carved in the shape of an amphora. Usually the perfume containers were made of blown glass and, on very few occasions, specimens made of quartz have been found, a material that, due to its characteristics and the difficulty of carving given its hardness, made them highly sought after and extremely expensive.

In addition to the uniqueness of the container, the truly extraordinary fact was that it was perfectly sealed and the solid residue of the perfume was preserved inside, an aspect that made it possible to carry out this investigation.Ruiz Arrebola points out that the use of dolomite (a type of carbon) for the stopper and the bitumen used to seal it were key to the magnificent state of preservation of the piece and its contents.

To find out what the perfume was made of, several instrumental techniques were used, such as X-ray diffraction and gas chromatography combined with mass spectrometry, among others. According to Ruiz, from the analyses it was possible to determine that the small cylindrical cap was, as mentioned, made of dolomite and that bitumen was used for its perfect adhesion and airtight seal. As for the perfume, two components were identified: a base or binder, which allowed the aromas to be preserved, and the essence itself. In this case the base was a vegetable oil, (possibly, according to some indications reflected in the analyses, olive oil, although this point cannot be confirmed one hundred percent). As for the essence, however, according to the results of the chemical analysis carried out by the University of Cordova, Rome smelled of... patchouli. This essential oil was obtained from a plant of Indian origin, Pogostemon cablin, which is also widely used in today’s perfumery and of whose use there is no record in Roman times. On the other hand, the monumental characteristics of the tomb in which it was found and, above all, the material from which the container that contained it was made, suggest that it was a highly valuable product.

“According to Pliny,” the researchers explain in the scientific article, “perfumes or ointments should contain two essential ingredients, namely a liquid and a solid part. Occasionally a dye was added to color the perfumes. The oils most frequently used to make perfumes were extracted from sesame, spicy radish, almonds or, most importantly, oil, which was easily obtained in large quantities. Olive oil made from unripe olives resisted oxidation better than oil from ripe olives. Therefore, perfumes made by Roman artisans contained an oily foundation rather than alcohol and consequently required to be kept in a container. In any case, the actual recipes compiled by classical authors were very vague or confusing in terms of the quantities of ingredients and procedures to be used. The Romans used perfumes not only in daily life but also on special occasions such as funerals, where incense was mandatory. In addition, perfumes were applied as ointments or used to embalm the dead. When a corpse was cremated, bones and ashes were kept in an urn along with more or less expensive perfumes kept in containers made of metal, glass, pottery or rock crystal depending on the fortune of the deceased or the gratitude of the heirs. The wealthy had funeral chambers made to hold the urns of all family members.”

“This research,” the university explained in a note, “represents a milestone for the field of Roman perfumery and the use of patchouli as an essential oil. Further studies are currently underway on other unique materials (such as amber, textiles or pigments used in wall paintings) preserved in the Carmona mausoleum and on which results are expected soon.”

The new findings of this work are indeed interesting and offer significant developments. As the researchers explain in the conclusions of their study, "This is the first report on the use of bitumen as a sealing agent in an unguentarium with a dolomite cap, another unique finding. The use of bitumen to seal and waterproof the dolomite cap was quite plausible since theunguentarium may have been made in a perfume workshop elsewhere in the Roman Empire and later purchased by the owners of the tomb. Thus ensuring that theunguentarium kept its contents intact for a long time by using a sealed and waterproof cap. To our knowledge, this is perhaps the first time a Roman-era perfume has been identified."

Pictured is the Carmonaunguentarium .

Spain, for the first time in history identified the composition of a Roman perfume
Spain, for the first time in history identified the composition of a Roman perfume

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