The real smell of ancient Rome has been revealed after a sealed vial of Roman perfume dating from around the time of Christ was opened.
Scientists analyzed the vial which was found during the construction of a house in Spain after being ‘extraordinarily’ preserved for more than 2,000 years.
And it seems that back then there was a whiff of patchouli oil in the air.
The plant’s scent was famously the preserve of hippies and groovy art teachers in the 1970s, and used for centuries as an earthly scent and moth repellent.
The ancient stopper made of dolomite, a type of carbon, and tightly sealed with bitumen enabled the contents of the tiny glass container to be maintained.
Scientists have analyzed a vial of perfume (pictured) found during construction of a house in Spain after being ‘extraordinarily’ preserved for more than 2,000 years
The vial was discovered with the ointment intact in a funerary urn in the Roman city of Carmo, today’s Carmona, near Seville in Spain.
It was discovered in 2019 during an archaeological dig in a mausoleum found during the construction of a house on the Calle Sevillat.
It had been preserved and solidified inside a vessel carved in quartz, which was still perfectly sealed.
It was a collective tomb, possibly belonging to an affluent family, and in which the cinerary urns of six adult individuals – three women and three men – were found.
In one of the urns made of glass, over the cremated skeletal remains of the a woman between 30 and 40 years old, a cloth bag had been placed containing three amber beads and a small quartz flask carved in the shape of an amphora, containing the anointment.
The truly extraordinary aspect of the find was that it was perfectly sealed, and that the solid residues of the perfume had been preserved inside, which made it possible to carry out this study.
Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Cordoba, José Rafael Ruiz Arrebola, was able to analyze the sample and the results were published in the journal Heritage.
The vial was discovered with the ointment intact in a funerary urn in the Roman city of Carmo, today’s Carmona, near Seville in Spain
Patchouli was once the preserve of hippies and groovy art teachers in the 1970s. More recently perfumers have created a slew of wildly varied fragrances from the earthly scent (File image)
To work out what was in the perfume, Prof Arrebola and his team used X-ray diffraction and gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry.
They found the small cylindrical stopper was made of dolomite and that bitumen was used for its perfect fit and airtight seal.
Two components of the perfume have been identified: a base or binder, which allowed for the preservation of the aromas, and the essence itself.
The base was a vegetable oil, possibly olive oil, according to some indications reflected in the analysis.
According to the results of chemical analyzes the essence itself was patchouli, an essential oil obtained from a plant of Indian origin.
It is widely used in modern perfumery but its use in Roman times was not known.
The monumental characteristics of the tomb where it was found and, above all, the material of which the vessel containing it was made, suggest that it was a highly valuable product.
Prof Arrebola said: ‘To our knowledge, this is possibly the first time a perfume from Roman times has been identified.
‘This is the first report on the use of bitumen as a sealing agent in an unguentarium with a dolomite stopper-another unique finding.
‘Based on the analysis of the sample, the perfume in question was patchouli.
‘The unguentarium contents’ composition is consistent with that of an extract of patchouli mixed with vegetable fat.
‘The results are consistent with classical works according to which a perfume consisted of at least two different substances: an essential oil, or the plant leaves from which it was extracted and a fatty material.’