Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Perfume Secrets Unearthed update

On March 25, 2009, I wrote about the topic of the world's oldest perfumery.

This topic was and still is of special interest to me because I have visited and stayed with family in Cyprus several times over the past fifteen years.  The time I have spent in Cypus continues to influence my perfuming in many ways.

The following is a re-write of my March 25, 2009 post. 

I was thrilled to read in Perfumer Flavorist and Magazine (March 2007) that "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."

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.

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.

Olive oil was the basic ingredient for making medicaments, cosmetics, perfumes and soft textiles.

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.
“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.

Serious efforts were made to copy the ancient perfumes, as descibed by Belgiorno: “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.”

Regarding ancient methods used to make perfumes, Belgiorno 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.


  1. What an interesting and compelling article, Shelley. I loved learning about the alembic these ancients used! And also about their perfumes. Many thanks....

  2. I'm a Perfume Nerd, Marlene, and realize this is pretty nerdy stuff - so i'm so glad to hear that you found it interesting.

    After all, what perfume has the permanence of this one, alchemically transformed as it was by earth, fire, air, and water?

  3. How fascinating! It's mind-boggling to imagine its lasting this long.

  4. This is really cool! I hope SMN does start producing their perfumes! It doesn't surprise me that they would use perfume daily; it seems common in the ancient world to do so. I just wonder why we treat scent so cavalierly nowadays. Great post, thanks so much!


  5. Thank you for your positive input, Beth and LBV!

  6. Great post Shelley! The alembic is an interesting piece of technology. Thank you so much for posting this -- I think I'll link it to the Academy :)

  7. A worthy academy topic! So pleased to hear this :)

  8. So beautiful!!!
    It is so inspiring!
    I have to tell you an amazing story about this article of yours, Shelley.
    Sometime ago, Justine proposed an ambit at eha Academy for us to make an oil perfume with the ingredients found in this excavation. And we did.
    At the time I was impressed with the gladiators (result of a visitation of a Museum in Selçuk, Turkey) and Imagination took over. I made an oil called Eos that was designed for curing wounds of the surviving gladiators from an afternoon in the Circus.
    Time went on and in February this year, I took some of that oil to show theo students of a workshop I gave. One of them adored the smell and massaged all over her body with it, and felt great relief of a kidney problem. Next day she told me that during the night she expelled a stone. And she kept expelling from then on...
    Extra! she didn't use anything else!
    So I suppose that these perfumes had a therapeutic approach too! Who knows?

  9. Ane, it is so wonderful to realize that the magic continues to be passed on through the centuries. I'm so pleased that you found inspiration in my article and that you so wisely applied it to your wonderful project. And you shared it with the world! YOU are the inspiration to us all! And thank you to Justine for sharing the article, she's an amazing woman!