Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Four Thousand Year Old Perfumery





Pyrgos/Mavroraki is an archaeology site in the Limassol district of Cyprus, spanning from 2350BC to 1850BC. The mission’s head archaeologist, Professor Maria Rosaria Belgiorno, who works for Italy’s National Research Council, excavated the site with her team, starting in 2005.

The site, an early Bronze Age industrial complex that produced wine, perfumes and textiles dyed with purple or blue indigo, also includes remains of a palace from the early Bronze Age.

Belgiorno and her team have also painstakingly researched and recreated the 4,000 year old fragrances from residues found at the site perfumery. Belgiorno's recent book entitled Aromata Cipria, (Cyprus Perfumes), describes the process used for her perfume experiments that she conducted at the Antiquities Centre in Italy.


For each of the four perfumes recreated by Belgiorno and her team, the process took about five days and the mixture was enclosed in a jug buried under the sand in the sunlight at a temperature of no more than 50 degrees, to avoid damaging the mixture. The four scents produced are ‘Afrodite,’ ‘Elena,’ ‘Artemides’ and ‘Era.’ ‘Afrodite’ contains olive oil, pine, turpentine and bergamot. ‘Elena’ has scents of olive oil, laurel, coriander and turpentine. In ‘Artemides,’ almonds, myrtle, parsley and turpentine are used and, for ‘Era,’ olive oil, rosemary, green anise and lavender.

“For the essences, we copied the entire process, step by step, as was done, 4,000 years ago, putting the essences into a closed jug underground, in the sunlight for five days. But the entire process for the four different essences took about six months, because we had to wait for the seasonal essences to come out of the herbs,” Belgiorno said.

Olive oil was the basic ingredient for making medicaments, cosmetics, perfumes and soft textiles.
Regarding ancient methods used to make perfumes, Belgiorno also notes: “It is possible to extract essential oils and perfumed waters with the same system, as during boiling, the terpenes - tiny particles of fragrant plants, transported by vapour - pass the alembic head into a collecting jar. At the end of the operation, the essential oils float on the water surface and it is easy to separate them from the water.” The procedure, she adds, appears simple for a modern point of view but in the third millennium BC, it was different. The distillation methodology should follow serious rules including the system and duration of boiling, and cooling as the final stage.

“The vase used at Pyrgos as a condenser, was probably one of the large metallic ware jugs, whose neck shape and dimension is correct to contain the alembic spout and the base perfect to say inside a water basin. Six jugs of this type and dimension, all crushed, have been found in the Pyrgos perfumery: three were on the bench running along the eastern wall, two among the pits for maceration and one in north west corner, where there were two alembic heads and two large basins. “The experiments made to reconstruct the apparatus confirm that the shape and dimensions of the jugs are correct not only to be used as condensers but also as boilers (going inside the alembic head) which find a perfect support on the jug shoulders,” said Belgiorno.

Describing the process used by her team of archaeologists and scientists for copying the ancient perfumes, Belgiorno said: “In our experiment, we found that direct contact between the jug and the embers quickly raised the temperature in the liquid. Using a thermocouple to calculate the temperature inside the jug, 15 minutes after the start of the heat treatment, we found that it was 84C. This is rather high. Based on the literature, 55C was the right temperature for extracting essences. Thanks to a mistake in our procedure for making fragrant essences, we were able to see how hard it is to maintain the jug temperature constant from the outset.”

Update Posted 5/9/09
From Perfumer & Flavorist Magazine, March 2007 Issue:
Archaeologists have recently discovered the world's oldest perfumes in Pyrgos, Cyprus. The remaining traces of perfumes, dating back more than 4,000 years, were scented with extracts of lavender, bay, rosemary, pine or coriander and kept in small translucent alabaster bottles. Just as intriguing as the scents they found was where the archaeologists found them—a 43,000 square foot perfumery factory. There they found at least 60 distilling stills, mixing bowls, funnels and perfume bottles. The discoveries are on display at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. In addition, an Italian foundation has recreated four of the perfumes from residues found at the site.

5 comments:

  1. We share a mutual interest in historical as well as chypre perfumes, Dimitris. My daughter lives in Cyprus, and that makes these topics of even more special interest to me personally.

    Meanwhile, back here in Carmel, there is utterly no evidence that our early native inhabitants had a perfume gene. But as a respectful offering I have developed an ethnobotanical fragrance that showcases the local herbs they used in their ancient spiritual, culinary, and medicinal practices. And yes, it is a chypre, as they did use oakmoss.

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  2. It is incredible that these items exist today and so fortunate that the archeologist did not dismiss these items but rather chose to recreate the science. These sites are rather large but my mind wonders if there were niche perfumers back in those days, folks like you and me and others that are fascinated and just need to experiment. Now that would be a find… yes?

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  3. I will start my olive oil perfume too. I am thinking of what to do...

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  4. I am sharing the privilege of making an olive oil perfume like these.
    I'm in love with this experience!!!
    I've been infusing oils for such a long time and never knew why. Now I know!
    Thanks a lot por posting this.
    Ane*Walsh

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