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Study reveals that ancient Rome smelled like patchouli

For the first time in history, a research team from the University of Cordoba has successfully unearthed and identified the composition of a Roman perfume, a fragrance that dates back more than 2,000 years. This fascinating find, a small vessel of ancient ointment, came to light in the historical city of Carmona.

Two millennia ago, in what was once the bustling Roman city of Carmo, now modern-day Carmona in Seville, a precious vessel of ointment was carefully placed in a funerary urn. Fast forward twenty centuries, and this aromatic time capsule has been deciphered. 

How the study was conducted

The FQM346 research team, under the guidance of Professor José Rafael Ruiz Arrebola, unveiled this relic’s secrets to the world. This project was a joint effort, alongside the City of Carmona.

Their findings were recently published in the Swiss scientific journal, Heritage. Co-authors of the article included the city’s municipal archaeologist, Juan Manuel Román, and researchers Daniel Cosano and Fernando Lafont from the University of Cordoba. 

Their collaborative work unveils the technical and scientific process that brought the scent of the Roman Empire back to life.

The perfume was discovered in 2019, during an archaeological excavation at a mausoleum unearthed during a house construction on Calle Sevillat. This ointment’s residue, found still solidified inside a quartz-carved vessel, remained undisturbed and perfectly sealed for centuries.

As Román explains, the mausoleum was a collective tomb, likely belonging to a wealthy family. Inside, archaeologists found cinerary urns holding the remains of six adults – three women and three men. Burial objects, such as offerings and trousseaus, accompanied these remains.

In one particular urn, a cloth bag was discovered over the cremated skeletal remains of a woman aged between 30 and 40. This bag, of which remnants were preserved, contained three amber beads and a small rock crystal flask, shaped like an amphora, with the historical ointment.

Román notes that perfume containers were typically crafted from blown glass, making this quartz flask an incredibly rare find. The quartz’s unique properties and the difficult nature of its carving made such vessels highly valuable and costly.

Researchers found a very-well preserved vessel

Ruiz Arrebola highlighted the extraordinary condition of the find, attributing the vessel’s impeccable preservation to the use of dolomite as a stopper and bitumen for sealing. This seal allowed the perfume’s solid residue to remain intact, enabling the present study.

To determine the perfume’s composition, the team utilized advanced instrumental techniques, such as X-ray diffraction and gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry. 

Through this analysis, they determined that the small stopper was made of dolomite (limestone) and that bitumen ensured its perfect fit and airtight seal.

The perfume contained two main components: a binder, which preserved the fragrances, and the essence itself. The binder was a vegetable oil, possibly olive oil, aligning with descriptions by historical writer Pliny the Elder. However, the precise nature of this oil remains inconclusive.

As for the essence? 

To everyone’s surprise, Rome smelled of patchouli, an essential oil extracted from Pogostemon cablin, a plant native to India. 

Widely used in contemporary perfumery, its usage during Roman times was previously unknown. The high-value materials of the vessel, along with the tomb’s monumental characteristics, suggest that patchouli was indeed a highly prized essence.

Fascinating find sheds more light on the lives of ancient Romans

This research has significantly advanced our understanding of Roman perfumery, especially the use of patchouli as an essential oil. The team continues their work, exploring other unique materials, such as amber, fabrics, and pigments used in the mausoleum’s wall paintings, all preserved in the Carmona mausoleum.

Considering the rarity and excellent state of preservation of these findings, they hold incredible potential for deepening our understanding of Roman culture and practices. The researchers are eagerly awaiting the results of their ongoing studies on these unique materials.

Unearthing the scent of a long-gone civilization is no small feat. It adds depth to our knowledge of the Roman Empire, further shedding light on the sophisticated and luxurious lifestyle that may have been commonplace for the affluent Romans.

Vivid picture emerges of Roman artisanship

From the painstakingly carved quartz container to the precious essence it held, this discovery paints a vivid picture of Roman artisanship and their interaction with the wider world. The revelation that Rome enjoyed the aroma of patchouli, an Indian-origin plant, hints at the vast expanse of their trade routes, reaching as far as the Indian subcontinent.

The study of this Roman perfume, therefore, is not just about the perfume itself. It is a testament to the cultural, economic, and even global connections that the Romans had established more than two thousand years ago. It also underlines the extraordinary methods of preservation they had, methods that allowed a team of scientists in the 21st century to experience a hint of life in ancient Rome.

The scent of Rome, encapsulated in a quartz amphora for centuries, now wafts into the modern world, a tantalizing aroma that teases our senses and invites us to delve deeper into the fascinating saga of human history. 

As we await further revelations from the ongoing research, we celebrate this remarkable achievement by the University of Cordoba and their collaborators, which brings the ancient world a little closer to us.

More about patchouli 

Patchouli is a plant species from the mint, or Lamiaceae, family. Its scientific name is Pogostemon cablin. Patchouli is native to tropical regions in Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia, and it is extensively cultivated in China, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Mauritius, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Origin of patchouli

The patchouli plant is a perennial herb that grows to be about two to three feet tall. It has a strong stem, furry leaves, and produces small, pale pink-white flowers. However, it’s not the flowers that are of interest, but the oil produced by the leaves. The leaves are subjected to a distillation process to extract this essential oil.

Patchouli oil has a heavy and strong scent that’s often described as earthy, musky, and somewhat sweet. Its distinctive scent is recognized and used in many cultures worldwide, and it has a rich history in perfumery.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was a popular fragrance in Europe, particularly in England. Patchouli oil was often used to protect fabrics from insects during shipping, especially in the silk trade, so the scent of patchouli became associated with exotic luxury goods. This led to the use of patchouli in many perfumes and cosmetics.

How patchouli is used in modern times

Today, patchouli oil continues to be used extensively in perfumes, essential oil blends, and other cosmetic products. It’s often used as a base note in perfumery because its scent is long-lasting. It’s also a common ingredient in incense.

In addition to its fragrance uses, patchouli oil is used in traditional medicine in many cultures. It’s believed to have several health benefits, such as antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. However, the evidence supporting these benefits varies, and more scientific research is needed to fully understand the potential therapeutic applications of patchouli oil.

It’s also worth noting that patchouli, like any other substance, can cause allergic reactions in some people. So, it’s always recommended to test a small amount of patchouli oil on the skin first or consult a healthcare provider before using it for therapeutic purposes.

Overall, patchouli is a versatile plant known for its unique scent and potential health benefits, adding value to various industries from perfumery to alternative medicine.


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