Science has deciphered the smell of Cleopatra’s perfume

We know a lot about our past. We have found written books, hieroglyphs, works of art, clothes or tools. But we have no idea of the smell of the past and its inhabitants, of the perfumes used in antiquity or of the smell of the streets or the interior of buildings.

Smell is one of our most important senses. It helps us connect to our environment and form through the association of memory and smell. However, when we go to a museum, we only see things, we cannot smell the past. Through the remnants of incense or oils, we can get a sense of the smells that were prevalent thousands of years ago, but the smell is ephemeral and it takes a lot of study to recreate it.

Thanks to the project ODEUROPA funded by the EU's Horizon 2020 program, a group of researchers were able to focus on rediscovering the smells of the past by collaborating with historians, experts, chemists and perfumers. They studied the imperceptible biomolecular residues left behind in incense burners, perfume bottles, and storage jars and jars.

The use of the latest technologies

Techniques such as chromatography, which separates the components of a mixture, and mass spectrometry, which detects different compounds by calculating the weight of individual molecules, have been implemented. The molecules contain lipids (from fats, oils and waxes), which are not soluble in water and are incorporated in different materials, such as the ceramics of the containers used as lamps or for the storage of ointments.

In the analyses, traces of products of plant origin such as resins, aromatic woods, herbs, fruits and spices were found. These compounds can reveal the ingredients and aroma of incense, perfumes and food products. During the research, attempts were made to reproduce different incenses and ointments in order to elucidate the odor they gave off at the time.

The Mendezian perfume

On the other hand, a very specific study led by the University of Chicago and entitled “Cleopatra's Water” aims to elucidate the composition of the perfume used by the Queen of Egypt. Specifically, they analyze the Mendesian perfume, originating from Mendes, an ancient Egyptian city. The Romans called this perfume “Egyptian” because it was so popular.

The process of creating Mendesian perfume was very laborious. Scientists have studied many ancient Egyptian texts that relate recipes for perfumes and fragrances, as well as traces of them. It is known that Mendezian perfume was composed of a base of oils and a mixture of spices and herbs macerated under heat for 10 days and 10 nights.

Problems in the process

However, scientists knew that when an oil is heated for a long time, it then has a rancid smell. However, by following this technique, the bad smell of the oil was neutralized by the myrrh, cardamom and cinnamon. Also, by following this procedure, the fragrance lasted longer.

The goal is to create an olfactory database with scents from the past and present.

Today, our perfumes use ethanol as a base and not oil, which is relegated to more natural brands. For their part, scientists want to create a database to “preserve the scents currently available to give future generations an idea of our time and a more recent past.

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