The Oldest Perfumery Uncovered

The Oldest Perfumery Uncovered

ITALIAN archaeologists have found the world's oldest perfumes on Cyprus.

The perfumes were scented with extracts of lavender, bay, rosemary, pine or coriander and kept in tiny translucent alabaster bottles.

The remaining traces found at Pyrgos, in the south of the island, are more than 4000 years old. They were discovered inside what archaeologists believe was an 3995-square-metre perfume-making factory.

"We were astonished at how big the place was," the leader of the archaeological team, Maria Rosaria Belgiorno, said. "Perfumes must have been produced on an industrial scale."

At least 60 stills, mixing bowls, funnels and perfume bottles were perfectly preserved at the site, which had been blanketed in earth after a violent earthquake about 1850BC.

The abundance of perfumes fits well with Cyprus' mythological status as the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. "The goddess' myth was strongly linked to the perfume she used to get what she wanted," the head of Cyprus' antiquities department, Pavlos Flourentzos, said.

The finds are now on display at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Four of the perfumes have been re-created from residues found at the site. An Italian foundation, which aims to re-create antique traditions, distilled them according to techniques described by Pliny the Elder, by grinding the herbs, adding them to oil and water, and burying them in a long-necked jug over hot embers for 12 hours.

"It smells good, but strong," museum visitor Alessia Affinata, 30, said.

"I can smell the pine especially," said Giulia Occhi Villavecchia, 23.

 The most ancient prescriptions to make essential oils and perfumes with come from Sumer. They have been written on clay tablets dated to be from the IV millennium. A mention of perfume fragrance is present in the holy hymns, in the heroic histories and mythology, as in the Gilgamesh tale.

In turn, the Egyptians considered perfumes a necessity of life and death, of personal prestige and religion. In Egypt sacred and mundane both found a common denominator in the production and use of essential oils, perfumes and cosmetics.

However, nobody knows when exactly production of essential oils and perfumes in Ancient Egypt began.

The use of scents started in the Mediterranean around the middle of the fourth millennium, when small vases for cosmetics and perfumes appeared among various funerary items.

Around the same date the first alabaster vases appeared, most notably created specifically for the storage and preservation of oil-based perfumes. Stone is the best material to keep fragrant oils in a preserved environment to prevent them from losing their aromatic and volatile compounds.

In ancient times, the procedure of releasing aromatic compounds to create aromatic oils for medicinal and perfume use began with an infusion of fragrant plants in rain water and olive oil in a receptacle and distilled at various temperatures for various lengths of times depending on the plant material used. During this period, plant and floral parts would release their volatile essential oils in water to join the olive oil on the surface.

Water and olive oil maceration was one of the the more common methods used in antiquity.

Numerous recipes tell precise ways and times to obtain essences and the quantities of fragrant compounds necessary to make a specific perfume or medicinal compound.

Theophrastus, Plinius the senior and Dioscorides had traded many such recipes. 

At Pyrgos, the eastern side of the olive room hosted the perfumery. It was arranged in a large sector of floor where 14 pits plastered with calcarenite and talc have been carved.

Each hosted a jug for the maceration, but around the pits, hundreds of flint blades of different shapes and dimensions have been found mixed with more than 70 clay vases.

The finding of two paraphernalia to distill fragrance essences, was of special interest. Each of them was composed by four pieces: two jugs, one alembic head and one basin. All pottery was made in metallic ware to support high temperatures. The dating of this essential oil distillery is 4,000 years old. 

According to the type of aromatic oils produced and considering the pottery typology found in the perfumery there is evidence of three methods utilized at this particular ancient perfumery at Pyrgos to extract aromatic essences: boiling, distillation and maceration in hot water and olive oil.

The first procedure, water boiling, was for the extraction of resins and oil compounds from various tree barks, which were squeezed in a cloth turned by two sticks.

The second, distillation, was mainly used to extract essential oils from flowers, leaves and less fibrous plant material.

The third, maceration in water and olive oil, absorbs scents from roots, animal musk, and more fibrous parts of the plant material.

Particular attention is devoted to the funnels discovered in this ancient perfumery, a novelty in Mediterranean repertoire.

The objects are composed of a spherical bowl with handle and a long spout vertically positioned under the base.

A similar funnel was found in the excavation of Alambra. Coleman, J.E., Barlow, J.A., Mogelonsky, M.K. and Scharr, K.W., 1996.

Alambra was a Middle Bronze Age Settlement in Cyprus. Archaeological Investigations by Cornell University 1974-1985 associated the funnels to be very material similar to the Pyrgos perfume factory, including a unique alembic head.

A close examination of the funnel and its possible use suggest that funnels were instrumental to the manufacture of essential oils and other aromatic materials at this ancient perfumery, not only to transfer the essence between jars, but mostly to separate essential oils during the distillation. 

As anyone who has ever distilled essential oils the old way knows, the right type of funnel can be indispensable in the process of distillation to separate the precious aromatic compounds from the resulting hydrosol.

Similar funnels have been found on Ein Ghedi oasi (IsraelDead Sea), famous for the production of an exceedingly rare perfume essence, the persimmon. In ancient times, persimmon perfume oil was considered more valuable than gold, and was originally distilled from the resin of Commiphora Opobalsamum, a type of myrrh known as "The Balsam of Mecca" that had a very unique aromatic profile, bearing a fruity, almost seductive fragrance that was prized throughout the ancient world.

Even today, it is almost impossible to properly obtain the persimmon aromatic profile of this particular myrrh resin as it is closely guarded throughout Turkey and Arabia.

Most modern "Balm of Mecca" you can purchase today comes from a Canadian species known as American Silver Fir and is found to have a more camphorous aromatic profile, similar to rosemary, than that of the true Balsam of Mecca. 

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