What did the Romans smell like? Spanish scientists recover a jar sealed 2,000 years ago in Seville

What did the Romans smell like?  Spanish scientists recover a jar sealed 2,000 years ago in Seville

What did the Romans smell like? Spanish scientists have identified that the Empire perfumed itself with patchouli, an ingredient that is still used today in many of the colonies we have at home. The finding is the work of a group of researchers from the University of Córdoba led by Juan Manuel Román, Fernando Lafont, Daniel Cosano and José Rafael Ruiz Arrebola.

It all started in 2019, during the rehabilitation of a building in the Seville municipality of Carmona. The workers found archaeological remains and notified the town hall. The municipal archaeologist, Román, came immediately. What was found was a mausoleum with eight niches from 2,000 years ago "in magnificent condition" since it had never been looted. In the collective grave, rested the remains of six members of a family with high purchasing power. And on them there were various offerings, among which stood out a container carved in quartz "with a solid mass inside". They belonged to the niche of a woman in her 40s.

That bottle, which had been wrapped in a cloth bag of which remains were still left and was accompanied by amber stones, was taken to the laboratory and since then it has been analyzed by the team of researchers, who this week published their conclusions in the Swiss scientific magazine 'Heritage'. Among its peculiarities is that the amphora was carved in quartz, a very hard, resistant and unusual material. At that time, ointments were made of glass and, according to the researchers, by choosing this other material we are dealing with an item that was considered "highly sought-after and expensive."

In addition to the singularity of the container, the truly "extraordinary" fact was that it was "perfectly sealed" and that the solid residues of the perfume had been preserved inside, which allowed the investigation to be carried out. The stopper is an essential part of this discovery since, being made of dolomite stone and sealed with bitumen, it allowed what was inside to be preserved in a "magnificent" way. «Until now no one had managed to recover a perfume from Roman times. It is something unheard of," says Román. In other excavations, the containers were empty since perfumes are volatile in nature.

Olive oil to preserve the essence

To find out what the perfume was made of, different instrumental techniques have been used, such as X-ray diffraction and the technique of gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry, among others. And thanks to this, two components have been identified that respond exactly to what Pliny the Elder described in his treatises. It was made of a base or binder, which allowed the preservation of the aromas, and the essence itself. In this case, the base was a vegetable oil, possibly, and according to some indications reflected in the analyses, olive oil, although this point could not be confirmed one hundred percent.

Detail of the perfume stopper.

University of Cordoba

On the other hand, the results of the chemical analyzes carried out by the University of Córdoba show that the essence is an old acquaintance: "Rome smelled of patchouli", the researchers write. This essential oil is obtained from a plant of Indian origin, 'Pogostemon cablin', which is widely used in current perfumery. Until now there was no evidence that it was used in Roman times.

This research represents "a milestone" for the field of Roman perfumery and the use of patchouli as an essential oil. Currently, more studies are being carried out on other singular materials (such as amber, fabrics or pigments used in mural paintings) preserved in the Carmonense mausoleum and on which results are expected to be obtained shortly.

From the banks of the Nile to Pompeii

Archeology has long been interested in studying the aromas and olfactory landscapes of our past. One of the oldest perfumes in the world was reconstructed by the Egyptologist Dora Goldsmit, from the Freies Universität in Berlin. It was 5,000 years old and it took ten to recreate its aromas. From ancient Egypt, perfumes spread to the rest of the world, including Greece and Rome.

This last empire began to take odors into consideration after the conquest of the eastern Mediterranean. The doctor Pedanio Dioscórides Anarzabeo and Pliny the Elder were in charge of compiling some perfume recipes. The Romans used them for day to day, but also for special occasions. Funerals were one of these ceremonies where they were not lacking. Even the dead were embalmed with it.

In 2020, archaeologists from the University of Granada, the Valencian Restoration Institute and the Municipal Archaeological Research Service of Valencia located one of the best-preserved perfumeries from Roman times in Pompeii. It was a kind of laboratory store with a huge number of ceramic jars and ointments.