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Historical Perfumery in the West. From The Bronze Age To Classical Antiquity

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Supplementary material for the class taught on April 3rd 2020 as part of online activities within Virtual Classroom and Artisan Display group on Facebook.

The history of perfumery covers over 6000 years so I decided to divide the class into several blocks. The part is dedicated to the western world, narrowly defined as the Mediterranean Sea region (including Egypt) and the Palestine (defined as province of Rome) from the Bronze Age to the Ancient Rome times. I feel that the region of the ancient Fertile Crescent is worthy of its own class which is in preparation.

Introduction to perfumery

•In the beginning, the perfumery was under tight control of rulers and priests. “Democratization” of perfume usage happened during the Hellenistic period (in Greece) and Late Republic (in Rome).

•Cyprus seems to be an exception since the of use of perfumes oils and other fragrances was spread across the population (and not restricted to the elites).

•Around 4-5th century CE, independent warehouses, shops and stores were set up. Very often stores provided customized containers for clients looking for luxury goods.

•Adulterated and second grade products were sold to unsuspecting customers (and we still deal with the same issue in the 21st century CE).

•Trade both from the West to the East and from the East to the West developed in the 3rd millennium BCE.

•Wrecks of ships (like Uluburun), extant trade documents  and excavated containers show the extent of trade (we source the ingredients from the same places even today).

•The Cyprus, Crete, Arabian Peninsula, India, China, Persia, Egypt were sources of raw ingredients or ready products (including glass).

Perfume ingredients – methods of processing aromatics

•The most common perfumes of Bronze Age and antiquity were made in form of oil (plant-derived or animal grease) infused with fragrant materials like resins, spices, flowers and seeds.

3 major techniques for extracting the aroma from any plant material

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. The oil was pre-treated by addition of astringent substances like cardamom, coriander seeds  or calamus (sweet flag) root mixed with wine or water (stypsis). Afterwards the oil was heated either

–Directly on fire (Assyria, Egypt)

–In the hot ashes (Aegean)

–In a double boiler (bain-marie) (late Hellenistic Greece and ancient Rome from Late Republic period).

Perfume ingredients

•The main oils used in antiquity for perfumery:

  • olive oil from unripe olives (omphacium)
  • ben (moringa) oil
  • sweet and bitter almond oil
  • balanos oil
  • sesame oil

•The main animal fats used for perfumery:

  • lard
  • beef suet and marrow
  • fat from goose, duck, goat, donkey
  • beeswax

Perfumes were very often dyed with:

  • madder extract
  • alkanet extract
  • saffron

–After the process was finished, the infused oil was strained, filtered and transferred to containers, preferably made of stone, lead or glass. Especially alabaster containers were recommended as they kept the perfumes cool (both air and heat are the biggest enemies of perfumes).

–Honey was used to cover the interior of perfume bottle (as preservative).

Perfume ingredients – Predynastic Egypt (4000-3000 BCE)

  • Bitumen
  • Beeswax
  • Animal fats
  • Pistacia sp. resins
  • Myrrh
  • Amber resin (succinum)
  • Pine, cedar and juniper wood and resins
  • Sweetgum wood and resin (Liquidambar orientalis)


Hazel, Judith, and Seath Burrows. 2010. “A Non-Destructive Analytical Study of Predynastic Period Unguents from Ancient Egypt.” Manchester: University of Manchester.

Perfume ingredients – Dynastic Egypt (3000-100 BCE)

  • Plant oils: Balanos oil, almond oil (imported), olive oil (imported before New Kingdom), ben oil (imported)
  • Animal fats (lard, beef tallow, goose, duck)
  • Native/naturalized plants: sweet marjoram, juniper, myrtle, rose, henna, white lily, lotus (Nymphea caerulea), cyperus (sedges)
  • Pistacia sp. resins (imported)
  • Myrrh and frankincense
  • Imported plants: sweet flag, saffron, cassia, cinnamon, alkanet, aspalathos, camel grass, green cardamom, Indian nard.
  • Pine, cedar and  fir wood and resins
  • Galbanum, labdanum and sweetgum resin (Liquidambar orientalis) (all imported)


Byl, Sheila Ann. 2012. “The Essence and Use of Perfume in Ancient Egypt.” University of South Africa. https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Essence_and_Use_of_Perfume_in_Ancien.html?id=SZXZoAEACAAJ.

Replica of the cosmetic spoon from the Eighteenth Dynasty, Old Kingdom, reign of Amenhotep III, now in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, made from ivory and ebony, has the ‘swimming girl’ propelling a container in the form of a red lotus flower (with a hinged lid).

Perfume ingredients –  Aegean Sea (Bronze Age)

  • Olive oil, almond oil, sesame and safflower oils (imported)
  • Wine, wool, honey
  • Coriander, cyperus (sedge), iris
  • Rose, linden flowers, carnation flowers, wormwood,
  • Green cardamom, clary sage, mint, fenugreek,
  • Myrrh (?), cinnamon, anise, cumin, labdanum, oak moss, sweetgum (Liquidambar orientalis)


Foster, Ellen Douglas Hamill. 1974. “The Manufacture and Trade of Mycenaean Perfumed Oil (1995 Edition) | Open Library.” Duke University. https://openlibrary.org/books/OL16169635M/The_manufacture_and_trade_of_Mycenaean_perfumed_oil.

Tzedakis, Yannis., Holley. Martlew, Greece. Hypourgeio Politismou., and Ill.) Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago. 2001. Archaeology Meets Science : Minoans and Mycenaeans, Flavors of Their Time : Museum of Science and Industry, November-December 2001. Athens: Kapon Editions.

Perfume ingredients – Hellenistic Greece and ancient Rome

  • Rose petals, wild wine flowers, Egyptian blue lotus flowers, meadowsweet, Arabian and royal jasmine, saffron, white lily, narcissus, broom, carnation flower.
  • Myrrh, frankincense, labdanum, balsam of Gilead, oppoponax, galbanum, Aleppo pine resin, styrax, sweetgum, Siam benzoin, Burgundy spruce resin, mastic resin, terebinth resin.
  • Sweet flag, nut grass, mint, camel grass, Indian bay leaf, violet leaf, thyme, wild thyme (serpyllum), cypress, fenugreek, horsemint, marjoram, white wormwood, wormwood, myrtle, laurel berries, sweet basil.
  • Cardamom, black cardamom, cinnamon, cassia, nutmeg, juniper berries, oakmoss.
  • Costus, patrinia, valerian, Indian nard, Indian valerian, Celtic nard, galangal.

*The redaction of recipes is complicated by the ambiguity of the aromatics’ names. Example: 4 versions of nardinon muron since the main ingredient was identified as at least 4 different plants.

*Agarwood (oud) was known. Dioscorides mentioned that it ‘sweetens breath, powdered - perfumes body and could be burnt instead of frankincense.’ Though I have not really seen it in use until 8th century (Eastern Empire). White sandalwood was imported to Egypt but it doesn’t seem to be known in the Roman world (unless one of the ‘teak from India’ is really sandalwood). Sandalwood was used by the ‘Persians’ and it is possible that some of the exotic scents were imported to Rome (that’s why it is included in ‘My myrrh, my cinnamon’ fragrance).
*Camphor was used in India and Far East Asia both as pure aromatic and in form of highly camphorous plants. In the West, plants like white wormwood and common wormwood were used as camphor source. Pure camphor was used in medicine and perfumery in the West by mid-8th century.

Animal ingredients:

  • Onycha (opercula of marine snails) – used as fixative in perfumes and incense
  • Castoreum (beaver) – known as medicinal material only, not in fragrances
  • Musk (deer) – first mentioned in Byzantine medical text from late 5th  century, in late 7th century Paulus Aegineta mentioned that it was used in female perfumes as aphrodisiac to arouse sexual partners
  • Ambergris – first mentioned in 7-8th century Byzantine text of Paulus Aegineta (for medicinal use)
  • Civet – used in India from 1st century CE or earlier, made it to Europe probably around  8-9th century
*Many internet sources (including unfortunately museum websites) claim that classical Greeks (Hellenistic period) and ancient Romans used a lot of musk, civet and ambergris. These aromatics were used in the Far East, so it is possible that a ready fragrance or incense made it to Greece or Rome as exotica (like the content from cage cup, also known as vas diatretum, from necropolis of Saint-Pierre-l'Estrier, on the outskirts of Autun, France.  A mixture of oils, plants and flowers as well as ambergris were identified from the cap interior sides. The ambergris traces  suggests the origin of this ointment may have been in the Arabian Peninsula). But there are no local recipes in the West until late 7th to early 8th century (widely available writings of Aetius of Amida  are actually based on 10th-11th century copies which are heavily edited).


Dioscorides Pedanius, of Anazarbos, Tess Anne. Osbaldeston, and Robert P. Wood. 2000. De Materia Medica : Being an Herbal with Many Other Medicinal Materials : Written in Greek in the First Century of the Common Era : A New Indexed Version in Modern English. Johannesburg: IBIDIS. https://www.worldcat.org/title/dioscorides-de-materia-medica-being-an-herbal-with-many-other-medicinal-materials/oclc/59267898&referer=brief_results.

Link to PDF version: https://archive.org/details/de-materia-medica

Dioscorides, P.  and Beck, L. 2017. De Materia Medica. Germany: Olms-Weidmann.


Duke, James A., and Peggy-Ann K. Duke. 2008. Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of the Bible. Boca Raton  FL: CRC Press. https://www.worldcat.org/title/dukes-handbook-of-medicinal-herbs-of-the-bible/oclc/226087992&referer=brief_results.

Pliny, the Elder., and Harris Rackham. 1938. Natural History. Historia Naturalis : In Ten Volumes. 4, Libri XII – XVI (Loeb). The Loeb C. Cambridge Mass. [u.a.]: Harvard University Press. https://www.worldcat.org/title/historia-naturalis-in-ten-volumes-4-libri-xii-xvi/oclc/916660297&referer=brief_results.

Theophrastus., 372-287, and Arthur Hort. 1916. Enquiry into Plants, and Minor Works on Odours and Weather Signs. Volume II. The Loeb C. [Place of publication not identified]: Harvard University Press. https://www.worldcat.org/title/enquiry-into-plants-and-minor-works-on-odours-and-weather-signs-vol-ii/oclc/852018037&referer=brief_results.

Perfume – basic forms

Perfumes  existed in 3 different form:


--the solid matter left after the perfume making process was called magma and was re-used to make a second grade perfumes or ground to be used for scented sachets or scenting clothing and bedding 


–very often made with animal fat and beeswax

•Powders (diapasmata)

–the most famous is the scented  pink powder from Cyprus which was imported to Egypt during the Old Kingdom period

–scented with oakmoss and other aromatics and dyed with expensive imported Indian madder.


•Early incense was composed of single aromatics (herbs or wood chips) thrown into fire.

•Egyptians were probably first to introduce the compound incense like kyphi.

•By the 4-5th century CE, incense mixes in the West were compounded of several ground ingredients, moistened with fragrant wine and held together in form of flat cakes with honey. The ingredient composition suggest some influence of Indian perfumery, as both methods and raw ingredients were  disseminated through trade.

Sources for recipes

•Extant texts dedicated to perfumery or medicine



–Pliny the Elder

–Athenaeus of Naucratis

–Linear B script writings

–Egyptian extant texts preserved on papyrus

•Extant samples

–analysis results published in scientific journals (I set up notifications in Google Scholar for some of my searches)

–catalogs of organic plant material from excavations

–public domain database http://openarchem.org/ (it is temporarily down)

•Period literary sources which discuss scents use in general

–these are not recipes but they give enough base information to facilitate archaeological experimental reconstruction.

Selected bibliography

Manniche, Lise. 1999. Sacred luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt. 1st publ. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press (excellent book, Egyptian perfumes were a rage in ancient Greece and Rome).

Pointer, Sally. 2005. The artifice of beauty: a history and practical guide to perfumes and cosmetics, Stroud: Sutton.

Stewart, Susan M. 2007. Cosmetics & perfumes in the Roman world. Gloucestershire: Tempus.

The survey of perfume and incense: Travel in time and place starts here…

Cypriot powder (Bronze Age Aegean) (Belgiorno, Maria Rosaria. 2007. Mavrorachi : Il Profumo Di Afrodite e Il Mistero Della Dea Senza Volto : Dal 2000 a.C. Ad Oggi Quattromila Anni Di Profumo. Roma: Gangemi. https://www.worldcat.org/title/mavrorachi-il-profumo-di-afrodite-e-il-mistero-della-dea-senza-volto-dal-2000-ac-ad-oggi-quattromila-anni-di-profumo-mostra-florence-officina-profumo-farmaceutica-santa-maria-novella-17-marzo-13-aprile-2008/oclc/922704079&referer=brief_results).

Carnations and anise scented Middle Minoan (based on analysis of sample from pottery), ~ 1600 BCE.

Perfume based on extant sample from Mochlos (extant sample found in an amphora at Mochlos, Crete, dated to ~1500 BCE (Late Minoan IB)).

Rose-scented perfume from Pylos, Middle Bronze Age (based on recipes from linear script B tablets) v.1.2. (Shelmerdine, C. W. (1985) The perfume industry of Mycenaean Pylos. Göteborg: P. Åströms Förlag. Available at: https://www.worldcat.org/title/perfume-industry-of-mycenaean-pylos/oclc/1014841079&referer=brief_results (Accessed: 8 November 2018).

Late Minoan from Tourloti (based on analysis of sample from pottery) (Koh, Andrew J, and Kathleen J Birney. 2017. “ORGANIC COMPOUNDS AND CULTURAL CONTINUITY: THE PENN MUSEUM LATE MINOAN IIIC STIRRUP JAR FROM TOURLOTI.”  Mediterranean Archaeology & Archaeometry 17 (2): 19–33. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=be7f4de4-992c-4918-b0a3-32ae27c23c21%40sessionmgr4008&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWlwLHVpZCZzaXRlPWVob3N0LWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3D%3D#AN=126510395&db=aph).

Etruscan ointment from Chiusi (based on analysis of extant ointment) (Colombini, M. et al. (2009) ‘An Etruscan ointment from Chiusi (Tuscany, Italy): its chemical characterization’, Journal of Archaeological Science, 36(7), pp. 1488–1495).

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

Susinum (Dioscorides recipe).

Iasmelaion (Dioscorides recipe).

Telinon (fenugreek oil made according to the Dioscorides recipe).

Krocinon (saffron perfume made according to the Dioscorides recipe).

Metopion (classic Egyptian perfume, based on Dioscorides recipe).

Nardinon muron in 4 versions (Dioscorides).

The King of Parthia’s perfume version 1 (according to recipe in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History).

King of Parthia’s version 2.1 (literary sources on aromatics used in Parthian and Sasanian Empire) (Monchi-Zadeh, D. (1982) ‘Xusrōv i Kavātān ut Rētak’, in Monumentum Georg Morgenstierne II (ActaIranica 22), pp. 47–91).

‘My myrrh, my cinnamon’ Roman perfume (name is based on perfume mentioned in literary sources, but no recipe survived so the ingredients are chosen from works of Pliny and Dioscorides).

Late Gallo-Roman perfume in 2 versions (based on one of the earliest attempts to analyze an extant sample (Reutter de Rosemont, L. (1921) ‘Analysis of a remains in a Gallo-Roman vase’, Schweiz Apoth. Zig (Schweizerische Apotheker-Zeitung), 59, pp. 233–235).

Persian ‘Intoxicating violets’ v.1.2 (Grami, B. (2013) ‘Perfumery Plant Materials As Reflected In Early Persian Poetry’,  Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 23(1), pp. 39–52. Available at: https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/1327720117?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo (Accessed: 21 July 2017).

Additional information

For more information, please contact me by email at murcielago53@hotmail.com

An ongoing perfumery course on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/807436473052978/

For perfume samples or customized products: https://www.etsy.com/shop/TreasuresofTrecio?ref=simple-shop-header-name&listing_id=655226216


  1. really happy to find one of my XVlll dynasty spoons replicas here. Very interesting article also.


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