Oldest Perfumes Found on "Aphrodite's Island"

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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 Connection

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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