The scent of patchouli filled the air in the Roman Empire

After analyzing the chemical traces that were found in a small vessel that was found from an ancient Roman site in the city of Carmona, Spain, a team of researchers from Cordoba University Identify the elements of a Roman fragrance that was used over 2,000 years ago. Scientists have concluded that ancient Roman perfume was primarily composed of patchouli, an essential oil that was harvested from an Indian plant known as Caplin Pogostemon .

Patchouli only grows in the tropical climates of South and Southeast Asia. This means that it could have been imported into Roman territory and sold in products made for wealthy people of fortune who craved access to exotic ingredients.

University of Cordoba scientists wrote an article about their study in the journal legacy.

“Most of the available information pertains to ointments and/or cosmetic bases rather than essences. To our knowledge, this may be the first time that a perfume has been identified from the Roman era, which is a significant advance in this field.”

Known for its strong, earthy scent, patchouli is still used in perfumery to this day. But until now, no one had any idea that it was used to manufacture perfumes during the time of the Roman Empire.

Unguentarium quartz crystal vase found in a mausoleum during excavations in Carmona, Spain. Analysis of the tampon revealed traces of ointment that revealed the ingredients of this ancient Roman perfume. (University of Cordoba / CC BY 4.0 )

Patchouli in ancient times: a Roman fragrance and an uplifting fragrance

The jar containing the fragrance was discovered in 2019, during exploratory excavations launched as part of a housing project in the city of Carmona (known as Carmo when it was a Roman possession) in the province of Seville.

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The archaeologists involved in these excavations were surprised and delighted to discover an ancient elite tomb dating back to the first century AD. Inside this elaborate shrine, they found an assortment of high-quality funerary goods as well as six cremation urns, which were made of blown glass.

Hidden in one of these fancy jars they found a small sealed vessel made of crystalline quartz. When the stopper was removed from this container, the researchers discovered traces of some kind of ointment inside.

The items of this substance were extraordinarily well preserved inside a finely crafted quartz crystal beaker, which was clearly an item made for the use of a wealthy and important person. A study of the skeletal fragments in the jar revealed that it was used to hold the remains of a woman between the ages of 30 and 40, who was presumably buried alongside other members of her aristocratic family.

A stopper after being removed from the sealed flash discovered in the tomb.  Tests have revealed the ingredients used in the ointment, providing evidence of Roman perfume recipes from more than 2,000 years ago.  (University of Cordoba / CC BY 4.0)

A stopper after being removed from the sealed flash discovered in the tomb. Tests have revealed the ingredients used in the ointment, providing evidence of Roman perfume recipes from more than 2,000 years ago. (University of Cordoba / CC BY 4.0 )

A remarkably preserved Roman perfume find

The well-preserved vial and ointment were a rare find. To reveal the secrets of the chemical components of the ointment, a team of experts from the University of Cordoba, led by Professor of Organic Chemistry Jose Rafael Ruiz Aribola, conducted a series of tests on the substance in their school laboratory. With the help of fellow researchers Daniel Cusano and Fernando Lafonte, Ruiz Aribola was able to identify the ingredients in the salve with a high degree of probability.

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The researchers used X-ray diffraction, gas chromatography, and mass spectrometry to study the ointment samples and discover two components. One was a base or binder made from vegetable oil, likely olive oil, which could have been used to preserve the scent of perfume indefinitely. The second is the essence of the fragrance itself, which has been definitively shown to be a patchouli extract from the Pogostemon cablin plant.

Interestingly, these testing procedures also allowed the scientists to confirm that the flask’s stopper was made of dolomite, a hard sedimentary rock made of calcium magnesium carbonate. They also found that the stopper was coated with bitumen, a petroleum-based viscous substance that would have been added to ensure the stopper would fit snugly at the top of the quartz flask. According to the scholars of the University of Cordoba, the creation of this airtight seal is what kept the ointment (perfume) perfectly preserved despite the passage of more than 2,000 years.

Leaves of the patchouli plant Pogostemon cablin, the plant used to make Roman perfume discovered in a Roman cemetery in Spain.  (Stephen Orcello / Adobe Stock)

Leaves of the patchouli plant Pogostemon cablin, the plant used to make Roman perfume discovered in a Roman cemetery in Spain. ( Stephen Orcello / Adobe Stock)

The surprising popularity of perfume in the Roman Empire

Perfume was used extensively in the lands of ancient Rome, primarily by women but also to some extent by men. They often come in the liquid form that is most popular with perfumers today, but aromatic salves have also been created that can be applied to various parts of the body. The essences have been extracted from a wide variety of flowers and herbal plants ( Caplin Pogostemon is a type of mint), much of which was imported from the East.

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While perfumes were frequently used as scents or deodorants, they were also used as a remedy for various kinds of ailments, including stomach problems or fevers. They were also used as air fresheners in the home and even to help preserve food in some cases.

Although all of this is well known, researchers had not previously been able to find intact specimens of ancient Roman perfumes or scented salves. The discovery that the Romans were using patchouli as an ornamental fragrance is an important revelation, linking their aromatic practices to those that have survived to this day. If modern observers were able to travel back in time to visit Carmona in the first century, they would undoubtedly find Aromatherapy Of the patchouli fragrances in town they are all too familiar.

Thanks to their discovery of an authentic ancient Roman scent, University of Cordoba researchers are conducting additional testing on materials recovered from the newly discovered mausoleum in Seville. For example, they are currently analyzing the chemical contents of the pigments used in the tomb’s frescoes, hoping to learn more about ancient Roman artistic practices.

Everything inside the 2,000-year-old mausoleum has been preserved in almost pristine condition, providing ancient scholars and historians with a unique opportunity to explore the fascinating culture of Roman-era Spain.

Top image: The discovery of remains of an ancient Roman perfume in a cemetery in Spain could be the first time that a perfume from the Roman era has been identified. source: Cedrebine / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Valdi

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