An Old Perfume Bottle Reveals What Some Ancient Romans Smelled Like


An unexpectedly well-preserved fragrance flask offers a unique aromatic glimpse into ancient Rome, introducing a scent we recognize. Researchers, after studying the compounds inside a 2,000-year-old flask, discovered patchouli was a key component, as detailed in the journal Heritage on May 23.

While today’s fragrances frequently incorporate this earthy aroma, its utilization by Romans had not been documented prior. The flask, made of quartz and dating back to the first century, was unearthed in 2019 from a Roman grave in Carmona, a southern Spanish town formerly significant to Rome.

In this grave, scientists discovered an ovate leaden box containing a glass urn. Within the urn, they identified the flask alongside the ashes of a woman approximately 40 years of age, states chemist José Rafael Ruiz Arrebola from the University of Cordoba, Spain.

The popular burial method then was cremation, with affluent Romans often placing items in their graves to accompany the departed in the afterlife.

In the era of Rome, the quartz container itself symbolized opulence. Due to quartz’s hardness, fashioning it was challenging. The flask’s petite dimensions and intricate design already marked it as an uncommon find in a grave.

Adding to its uniqueness, it was securely sealed using a dolomite cap coated in a dark, viscous substance, identified through chemical testing as bitumen. Within the container was a solid formation, the maintained initial contents of the flask.

Historic perfume formulations, albeit ambiguous and lacking, indicated that Romans blended aromatic extracts with preservatives like olive oil. Previous research detected traces of floral essences in cosmetic containers known as unguentaria.

Yet, this marks the inaugural identification of an aroma’s origin. Tests in the lab showed the flask held patchouli mixed with vegetable oil. Patchouli originates from a tropical Southeast Asian plant named Pogostemon cablin, probably reaching Rome via trading routes.

Gas chromatography in tandem with mass spectrometry revealed several patchouli essential oil indicators, with patchoulenol or patchouli alcohol being the most notable.

To eliminate the possibility of nard oil, which shares many characteristics with patchouli oil but in varied ratios, the team juxtaposed the findings with contemporary patchouli oil samples. The patchouli’s chemical profile was preserved primarily due to the bitumen seal.

This seal not only retained the scent within the flask but also captured perfume molecules via adsorption.

The grave’s impeccable conservation also contributed. This finding aligns with the rising trend of reconstructing a holistic view of ancient civilizations, inclusive of their auditory and olfactory experiences.

However, this doesn’t imply patchouli was the prevailing scent throughout the Roman Empire. The fragrance, crafted from a foreign extract and stored in a high-end container, indicates an affluent owner, he mentions.

Yet, it remains uncertain whether this scent was for everyday use or held religious or burial significance. The sealed flask’s location inside a burial urn hints at a personal tribute, rather than an exhibition for the masses.