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Anointing the living and the dead – the art of perfumery in antiquity

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The historical background


Perfumes played a very important role in the ancient civilizations. They were the symbol of highest status in the society. They were used for seduction, feasting, official ceremonies, religious rites, funerals and medical work (Castel et al. 2009).

The perfumes of antiquity were made in form of oil (plant-derived or animal grease) infused with fragrant materials like resins, spices, flowers and seeds (Theophrastus and Hort 1916). There were 3 major techniques for extracting the aroma from any plant material (Dayagi-Mendeles and Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem) 1993). Pressing involved crushing the aromatic material, very often in a press and then recovering the aromatic liquid by twisting them from a cloth bundle. This was one of the oldest methods and the most inefficient in expelling the aromatic ingredients. Cold steeping or enfleurage was applied mostly to the delicate flowers. The petals were spread on layer of animal fat and then placed between two boards in order to recover the aromatized fat after a few days of exposure. The hot steeping was the most popular method throughout antiquity (and I made a good use of it, too). The oil was pre-treated by addition of astringent substances like cardamom or calamus root mixed with wine or water. Afterwards the oil was heated to around 65o C in a double boiler to avoid direct exposure to heat.  After several steps of heating and mixing, more aromatics were added, with final goal of no ingredient dominating over the others (Dioscorides Pedanius, Osbaldeston, and Wood 2000). Sometimes dyes like madder or alkanet from borage plant were added during this process. Once the desired aroma was achieved, the infused oil was strained, filtered and transferred to containers, preferably made of stone or glass.

The use of perfumes greatly enhanced the trade in antiquity. Most resin gums and spices were obtained from the Far East and Arabia (Voudouri and Tesseromatis 2015). The various oils were either produced locally (omphacium or unripe olive oil, castor oil, bitter almond oil) or imported from Egypt (moringa and balanos oils) (Mortensen 2014).

In Etruscan Italy, the religious and funerary rites were always accompanied by large quantities of perfumes and ointments (Fig.1).

fig 1
Fig.1. Reliefs from archaic Etruria. A, Volterra urn relief representing a sacrifice to the gods with incense and B, Chiusi relief representing a funerary rite. The perfume/ointment bottle is prominently displayed (Bodiou et al. 2008).


We know that they import large quantities of expensive perfumes from Greece and islands (like chypre perfume from Cyprus). Proof can be found in abundance of containers for perfume storage with Greek provenience, excavated from various sites in Etruscan territories (Fig. 2) (Bodiou et al. 2008).

Fig.2. Types of perfume bottles found in Etruscan excavations. A, amphora, B and C, amphorisque (a small amphora, very often requiring a support to stay upright), D, aryballos or spherical bottle, E, aryballos worn like a purse (a piece of cord or chain was attached to the spherical bottle), F, unguentaria and G, extant pottery aryballoi. (Bodiou et al. 2008).


As far as the Parthian customs are concerned, we know that both perfumes and incense were used by the kings and aristocracy (Mohagheghzadeh, Zargaran, and Daneshamuz 2011). Infused oils (of the cheaper kind) were also used to pay the salaries of workers, together with food and clothing (Farmanfarmaian 2000).  Frankincense was used both for the living and in the funerary rites, similar to Roman customs (Castel et al. 2009). White sandalwood, camphor, balsam, aloewood, myrrh, rose, iris root, violet leaf, sweet marjoram, saffron and elecampane (Inula helenium) are mentioned in period sources (Grami 2013). Some of these substance are also mentioned in the recipe recorded by Pliny the Elder.

Some glassware and stoneware bottles survived to our times, but mostly from the pre-Parthian dynasty of Achaemenids (550-330 BCE) (Mohagheghzadeh, Zargaran, and Daneshamuz 2011).They have both the shape of spherical aryballoi and the spindle shape unguentaria (Fig.3).


fig 3.jpg
Fig.3. Perfume containers from ancient Persia. A, marble scent bottles, Achaemenid period, Persepolis, B, glass scent bottles, Sassanian period, Susa Museum and C, alabaster containers, Achaemenid period, Susa Museum,(Mohagheghzadeh, Zargaran, and Daneshamuz 2011).


Chapter 1 – The Etruscan ointment


We have the rare opportunity to research the life and death of Thana Presnti Plecunia Umranalisa, the Etruscan woman whose cremated remains were accompanied in the afterlife by her toiletry box. Among the items was an alabaster spindle shape unguentarium containing the ointment/perfume.

The Etruscan ointment is a considerably dense liquid, consisting of 5 ingredients,  moringa oil  (Moringa oleifera), Retsina Kourtoki white wine, mastic resin (Pistacia lentiscus var. Chia), pine resin (Pinus sp.) and Burgundy spruce resin (Pini burgundica). It may have been originally used in both perfumery and medicine as the resins besides having a sweet smell, are also known for their antiseptic, wound healing and embalming properties.


The extant perfume/ointment


There are several perfumes /ointments that survived from the Roman antiquity as deposits in pottery and glass containers (Bodiou et al. 2008; Mortensen 2014)(Brun, Fernandez, and Voinot 2015). The containers were mostly discovered within a funerary setting so the use of the particular ointments may have been connected to funerary customs and not necessarily used by the living people. The analysis of many of these deposits revealed that they contained vegetable oils, resins and gums and beeswax  (Mortensen 2014; Bodiou et al. 2008). Beeswax was used for liquid-proofing of pottery containers what would explain its presence in the ointments themselves (Bodiou et al. 2008). The ointment (Fig. 4C) from the Chiusi  (Italy) tomb of the Etruscan woman Thana Presnti Plecunia Umranalisa falls within these funerary finds (Colombini et al. 2009).


fig 4.jpgFig.4. The cosmetic finds excavated from Thana Presnti Plecunia Umranalisa tomb in Chiusi necropolis (Tuscany, Italy) (Colombini et al. 2009). A, the maple wood cosmetic case which contained the unguentarium, B, the alabaster unguentarium and C, the yellowish and harden contents inside the unguentarium.


Dated to 150-125 BCE, it was determined by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to contain a vegetable oil and two plant resins, a mastic and a Pinaceae. The oil was defined as very stable moringa (ben nuts) oil, which did not grow in Italy, but was originally introduced from Asia to Egypt where it was produced in large quantities for perfume and medicine use (Grami 2013). The mastic resin was probably imported from Chios, Greece. The species was not defined and the resin described as obtained from Anacardiaceae trees. Several species can be taken in consideration (Pistacia lentiscus, Pistacia atlantica, Pistacia terebinthus) as they were widely used by ancient Sumerians, Egyptians and Greeks (Langenheim 2003). The second resin of the pine family was not further characterized, besides containing diterpenoid and triterpenoid compounds. This allows for incorporation in edited recipe of one or more resin of the Pinaceae family like pine and spruce (Kirk-Othmer. 2012; Langenheim 2003). The recipe is summarized in Table 1:

The common name Plant Latin name Provenience (for ingredients used in this project) Function
Moringa oil Moringa oleifera Egypt carrier
Mastic resin Pistacia lentiscus var. Chia Greece scent/filler
Pine resin Pinus sp. Portugal scent/filler
Spruce resin Pini burgundica France scent/filler

Table 1. The ingredients for the ointment from Chiusi, Italy.


Mastic resin has a sweet scent and from my previous experiments, seems to be the main scent in the ointment. Part of resin was treated with wine to extract the scent. Once the base was created by mixing the soaked resins and moringa oil, more resin was added during the limited heat exposure to balance the overall scent. Addition of the spruce resin added more of the terpenoid flavor, so associated with coniferous trees.


Materials, tools and methods


The aromatics, spices, herbs and oils were sourced from various sellers on eBay and Etsy. I also bought some items from Community Pharmacy in my city to help a local business.

The main source for rare resins and essential oils is http://www.scents-of-earth.com/index.html.

Retsina Kourtoki wine was purchased at a local co-op store.

The replicas of period pottery and glassware were acquired from local charity shops and eBay and Etsy sellers.

The bain-marie (or double boiler) used for gentle heating of the aromatic mixtures is actually a butter heater, working on tea lights as source of heat (Fig.5).


fig 5

Fig. 5. The bain-marie (double boiler) fits different shape of glass vessels. Shown the shallow bowl with the Etruscan ointment.


The glass bowls with tight covers used for infusing oil and wine are part of my collection of kitchen glassware.

For crushing herbs and aromatics I used both the granite and bamboo mortars.

At some point I want to experiment with a portable ceramic stove but this kind of work would have to be done outdoors and not in my tiny apartment. The equipment used by the people of antiquity to make perfumes was relatively simple (Fig.6) and the basic tools like flasks, funnels and mortars has not changed a lot since then  (Brun 2000) (Brun, Fernandez, and Voinot 2015; Dayagi-Mendeles and Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem) 1993).


fig 6.jpgFig.6. Group of excavated pottery vessels which may have been a property of perfume shop. En Gedi, late 7th-early 6th century BCE (Dayagi-Mendeles and Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem) 1993).


Dioscorides ‘De Materia Medica’ was the source for methods used to extract aroma from the plant matter (Dioscorides Pedanius, Osbaldeston, and Wood 2000; Brun, Fernandez, and Voinot 2015; Theophrastus. and Hort 1916). Saffron is infused in oil and both cardamom and black cardamom in water, in order to extract the aroma. Some resins and roots require extraction with alcohol, in this case the 14.5% resin-infused white wine. The whole process is carried at room temperature (RT) unless indicated otherwise. During the gentle heating in double-boiler process, the flask remain open to allow for aroma testing. When one substance seems to dominate, other ingredients are added to balance the notes. It is especially important for complex perfumes, with multiple ingredients added.


Making the Etruscan ointment


The experimental work was the most enjoyable part of this project. The perfumes are made in several steps which are spread over time. The recipes below mirror this extended processing time.


 Ointment from Chiusi (Tuscany, Italy):

Day 1

  1. 7 g mastic resin, 3.5 g spruce resin and 3.5 g pine resin soaked in 50 mL Retsina Kourtoki wine overnight at room temperature.

Day 2

  1. add 25 mL moringa oil added to the aromatics soaking in wine and the mixture was heated in bain-marie for 2 hours,
  2. after heating was finished, 3 g spruce and 3 g pine resin was added to the aromatics mix and let steep overnight.

Day 3

  1. the resin mix was heated in bain-marie for 2 hours.

Day 4

  1. 4 g mastic resin, 10 g pine resin, 4 g spruce resin and 10 mL moringa oil were added to the mix and heated for 2 hours in bain-marie.

Day 5

  1. the aromatics mixture was filtered through one layer of dense linen cloth and stored in glass bottle (Fig.7).


fig 7.jpg

Fig.7. Different steps in making the perfumes. Filtering the Etruscan ointment through linen cloth.


The total yield of the ointment is approximately 80 mL. This mixture is quite dense and semi-liquid and needs to be well mixed before trying it. The final scent seems to come from the mastic resin, but according to Theophrastus, we need to wait much longer for the full scent to develop (Theophrastus. and Hort 1916).

The Etruscan ointment was discovered in a spindle-shaped pottery container and I was lucky to find a matching replica (Fig.8B). This kind of bottle is not particularly well designed to stand so a special support may have been used in antiquity  (Dayagi-Mendeles and Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem) 1993).


fig 8.jpgFig.8. Roman pottery unguentaria. A, Approximate chronology of ceramic unguentaria present in Milwaukee Public Museum collection (Mortensen 2014) and B, the replica that forms the part of the display. Because it is unglazed inside, it would have been covered with beeswax before actual use.


Final thoughts

As much as I followed the extant sources, I have introduced some changes into the recipes. The Etruscan ointment was made using two different resins of the pine family, from spruce and pine. My first version prepared with just pine resin was much more flat and the scent did not develop a lot over time. I expect that adding the spruce resin from Portugal will deepen the final scent.




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Brun, Jean-Pierre. 2000. “The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity: The Case of Delos and Paestum.” American Journal of Archaelogy 104 (2): 277–308. http://www.worldcat.org/title/production-of-perfumes-in-antiquity-the-case-of-delos-and-paestum/oclc/900598894&referer=brief_results.

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