Oldest Perfumes Found on "Aphrodite's Island"
for National Geographic News
|March 29, 2007|
The world's oldest known perfumes have been found on the island reputed to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, lust, and beauty, Italian archaeologists announced last week.
Discovered on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in 2003, the perfumes date back more than 4,000 years, said excavation leader Maria Rosaria Belgiorno of the National Research Council in Rome.
Remnants of the perfumes were found inside an ancient 3,230-square-foot (300-square-meter) factory that was part of a larger industrial complex at Pyrgos.
The buildings were destroyed during an earthquake in 1850 B.C., but perfume bottles, mixing jugs, and stills were preserved under the collapsed walls.
The artifacts are currently on display at the Capitolini Museum in Rome, along with modern reproductions of the centuries-old scents.
Dwight Loren is a perfumer and fragrance consultant with Essential Creations in New Jersey and a member of the American Society of Perfumers.
He said Grasse, France, is considered to be the center of modern perfume making, but the industry is known to have ancient roots.
"How sophisticated it was we don't know, but certainly people were looking at natural ingredients to enhance either their own body or their environments or to use them in medicine," he said.
Belgiorno's team analyzed the remains of the mixing jugs and identified 14 fragrances native to the Mediterranean region used in perfume production.
Extracts of anise, pine, coriander, bergamot, almond, and parsley are among the ingredients the ancient perfume-makers preferred.
The team also discovered four "recipes" concocted with the different fragrances.
An experimental archaeology center in Blera, Italy, recreated these perfumes using techniques described by Pliny the Elder, a Roman author who died observing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.
Plants and herbs were ground up and mixed with olive oil in clay jugs, then distilled in a clay apparatus, Belgiorno explained.
The smell of the perfumes is "a nice experience that re-creates in our mind a sort of ancestral reminder," she said in an email interview.
Parsley, she noted, "is a terrible fragrance if used alone, [but it] forms a nice scent if blended with other fragrances."
The re-creations are not yet for sale to the general public, but the excavation team is looking for a partner to market them. Proceeds would fund further archaeological work.
Loren, the perfume industry consultant, said such a venture could prove viable if marketed to the appropriate niche, such as museum visitors, and packaged in a similar way to the ancient concoctions.
Aphrodite was likely recognized as the goddess of Cyprus because the island was already well known for its perfumes by the time the myth arose, according to Belgiorno.
Many perfumes today are considered aphrodisiacs—substances believed to boost sexual desire (related: "Do Aphrodisiacs Really Work?" [February 14, 2006]).
"The Cyprus perfumes were born before Aphrodite, and after Aphrodite they remained linked to the island and its goddess," Belgiorno said.
The archaeologist added that she doesn't know why the people of Cyprus started making and wearing perfumes 4,000 years ago.
In ancient Egypt, she noted, perfumes were used for cosmetic and pharmaceutical purposes as well as religious ceremonies.
Regardless of how the Cypriot perfumes were used, she believes today's fragrances just don't compare.
"We have lost the real world of natural fragrances," she said, "because most of the perfumes of today are chemical reproductions of the natural fragrances and scents."
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