Ancient Romans Smelled of Patchouli

Archaeologists identify a perfume of the empire in what may be a first
By Steve Huff,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 10, 2023 8:30 AM CDT
Ancient Romans Smelled of Patchouli
Ancient Roman tomb of Servilia archaeological necropolis complex, Carmona, Spain.   (Getty Images / Caron B)

A first-century Roman tomb discovered in Carmona, Spain, has pulled researchers nose-deep into the history of human scents, reports Smithsonian Magazine. Scientists from the University of Cordoba and Carmona's city museum detailed how they detected the distinct aroma of a bygone era—thanks to a vial of patchouli perfume among six entombed skeletons. "To our knowledge, this is possibly the first time a perfume from Roman times has been identified," write the researchers in the journal Heritage.

Patchouli today is seen by some as the signature scent of New Age bookshops and dorm rooms, but it was uncommon in toga-wearing times. A post at IFLScience notes it originated in India, and the fragrance was reserved for the wealthy and influential in the ancient Roman Empire. The quartz vial and its dolomite stopper suggest the tomb's inhabitants were well-off, per Artnet. Perfume's role in the ancient world was far from merely cosmetic. It was an olfactory multitool, used after—or in lieu of—bathing, in religious rituals, and even as an ingredient in various medicines.

The Romans weren't alone in using perfume, of course. Scientists have previously attempted to re-create Queen Cleopatra's preferred scent. Smithsonian reported in 2022 that research revealed the Egyptian ruler was likely surrounded by a potent potpourri of desert date oil, myrrh, cinnamon, and pine resin. According to archaeologists, this is vital, if subtle research. Knowledge like this—how ancient people used scents—can spark a deeper, more intimate understanding of ancestors' daily lives, habits, and rituals. (More discoveries stories.)

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