Spray painting: What the ancient past smelled like, and why that matters

Structures, objects, words — these are the mediums in which history is recorded.

An Egyptian painting from 1400 BCE depicts women holding flowers, an indication that they wore perfume. A new research project is recreating a perfume for this era, one likely worn by Cleopatra. Surprisingly, stronger fragrances such as cinnamon were considered ideal for women, in this period. (Getty Images)

Statues tell us what rulers looked like (or wished they did); monuments indicate what was considered significant (religion, trade, the afterlife). Songs and stories preserve tales of battles, victories, customs and feasts.

There are two things human history doesn’t record: the stories that record keepers didn’t want told; and the fragments they couldn’t capture. Fragrance is among the latter.

How does one convey an aroma? The challenge that perfume ads face today is, in many ways, an eternal one. In ancient art — from Egyptian carvings to Mughal miniatures — a blossom in the subject’s hands is used to indicate the presence of perfume.

Long-necked vials and flowers, particularly the lily, indicate a fresh aroma, a significant thing to be able to boast of, in a time of rudimentary sanitation and waste management.

Studies of what the past smelled like have been largely limited to analyses of the perfume industry, which dates to the ancient civilisations of Egypt and the Indus Valley. In the former, carvings even lay out recipes for oil-based aromatic mixes. At Indus Valley sites, researchers have found urns that once held oil- and water-based essences, and the remains of units where these mixes were produced.

There is, of course, a lot more to the tale. What did villages smell like, and the first cities? What were the aromas of a typical home, or person? Some of the missing chapters are now being filled in, as new technology analyses molecular traces of textiles, food, even the surfaces of walls and floors.

Evening of the Battle of Waterloo by Ernest Crofts; 1900. Paintings like this one are being studied for hints on odours from iconic events and places of the past. (Getty Images)
Evening of the Battle of Waterloo by Ernest Crofts; 1900. Paintings like this one are being studied for hints on odours from iconic events and places of the past. (Getty Images)

In Saudi Arabia, German archaeologist Barbara Huber is collecting samples from homes, temples, incense burners and cooking vessels, in attempts to recreate the smells of an ancient settlement called Tayma, preserved largely intact in a desert oasis, with remains dating from about 1500 BCE to 500 CE.

“Studying smells by leveraging potent new bio-molecular approaches can unlock another dimension of the past and help us understand critical aspects of lifestyles then,” Huber says. Her research, underway since 2016, has confirmed, for instance, that the inhabitants of Tayma burnt frankincense in their homes, likely to keep pests away and for its disinfectant, antibacterial properties.

This doesn’t just indicate what they knew; it indicates what they could afford. Frankincense was so expensive that the philosopher and military commander Pliny the Elder made note of its exorbitance in his writings, in the 1st century CE.

Researchers around the world, meanwhile, are borrowing expertise from fields such as art, chemistry and artificial intelligence (AI) programming to unlock other smells from the distant past.

In Europe, the Odeuropa project is using an AI-powered algorithm to scan imagery and text from across 400 years, starting in the 17th century, for clues of, for instance, what the canals of Amsterdam smelt like (apparently, it was a potent stench), and what aromas were overlaid on perfumed gloves. These smells are being recreated artificially and released into museums, to add another dimension to exhibitions.

Interesting details emerge when one looks back in this manner.

Researchers have found, from literary sources, that men in ancient Athens preferred floral notes, while resinous, woody, long-lasting fragrances such as stacte and Mendesian were considered ideal for women. Cinnamon, in particular, was associated with sex and luxury.

(Did Egypt’s queen Cleopatra use the cinnamon-heavy Mendesian? How have researchers recreated it? Read the story alongside for more on this and other ongoing experiments.)

Then again, recipes for Egyptian perfumes such as the susinon call for the harvesting and careful processing of 1,000 lilies in a day. “This indicates that a large workforce of slaves was likely exploited for the production of just a few litres of perfumed oil,” says researcher Sean Coughlin, who has spent years studying ancient cosmetics (and worked on recreating the Cleopatra perfume).

Most vitally, the study of smells has the potential to help us understand the everyday citizen of an ancient world, far better. There is little documentation of the general populace. Most ancient texts and art works focus on the lives and lifestyles of rulers and the elite; at most, record books may represent census numbers, or details of harvests and trade. Who were these people? What were their lives like? “An analysis of smells and aromatic substances can help recreate the fragrances of private houses,” says Huber, “or contexts that represented everyday life, such as an ancient village.”


Alchemies of Scent: Recreating ‘Cleopatra’s perfume’

A depiction of Cleopatra from circa 50 BCE. (Getty Images)
A depiction of Cleopatra from circa 50 BCE. (Getty Images)

In 2012, archaeologists unearthed the remains of a fragrance-making unit from the 3rd century BCE, in present-day Tell Timai, Egypt. Could they use trace elements that remained, to recreate a perfume that had been made here?

The archaeologists Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein reached out to Sean Coughlin, a researcher with the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences who was then working on the science of ancient cosmetics at Humboldt University in Berlin, along with Dora Goldsmith, a PhD student at the Free University there.

Together, they recreated Mendesian, a strong, cinnamon-heavy perfume believed to have been used by the elite in Cleopatra’s Egypt, including perhaps the queen herself. (It was named, in the ancient world, for the nearby city of Mendes.)

“We have papyri that include receipts from assistants of previous rulers ordering the purchases of great quantities of Mendesian, pointing to its popularity at the time,” Coughlin says.

Scouring medical texts and inscriptions on temple walls, the researchers pieced together a recipe that involved heating oil for ten days and nights so that it would become more receptive to the cinnamon and myrrh. The sample of perfume created using this recipe was showcased at the 2019 Queens of Egypt exhibition at the US National Geographic Museum in Washington DC.

In 2021, Coughlin decided to see what else lay down this road. His Alchemies of Scent Project unites Egyptologists, naturalists, chemists, computer scientists and olfactory artists, in attempts to recreate historic perfumes used in Egypt and Greece between 332 and 30 BCE. “This period, during Alexander the Great’s occupation, was a time of a massive exchange of trade, culture and knowledge,” says Coughlin.

The team started with what they thought was a simple recipe, for stacte, a fragrant ointment created by mixing myrrh and water. “It took two years and was a humbling experience,” he says.

The recipe called for myrrh to be pressed into a liquid, but most easily available forms of that resin are dry and crystalline. “It was like trying to squeeze water from a stone.” The researchers eventually learnt that when myrrh is relatively fresh, it holds pockets of an oily liquid, which, when crushed, can be used to create the ointment.

The next perfume they attempt will be susinon, an Egyptian lily-based scent depicted in several reliefs and recorded in early works on Greek medicine. “The recipe calls for 3,000 lilies,” says Coughlin, “so currently we are on the lookout for someone in Prague who can help with that.”


Whiffs of the past in Saudi Arabia: Aromas from artefacts

Scent information holds clues to the lives of the general population in ancient societies, often overlooked in the official records that focused on rulers and the elite, says Barbara Huber. (Chris Leipold)
Scent information holds clues to the lives of the general population in ancient societies, often overlooked in the official records that focused on rulers and the elite, says Barbara Huber. (Chris Leipold)

What people ate, drank and wore in ancient lands is being studied, at a molecular level, in attempts to recreate olfactory landscapes. Advances in biomolecular technology are helping.

New methods of studying ancient molecules, such as chromatography, mass spectrometry and sequencing technologies, are being used to analyse particles within ancient “scent archives” such as cooking pots, storage vessels, walls and floors.

In a notable example, since 2016, Barbara Huber, a doctoral researcher of archaeology at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology, has been researching remnants from scent archives in ancient Egypt and in the ruins of the ancient oasis settlement of Tayma in Saudi Arabia.

Evidence of settled living dates back 5,000 years here. It was a major crossroad in the early fragrance trade.

In a paper titled How to Use Modern Science to Reconstruct Ancient Scent, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour last year, Huber explains how residues in artefacts, city streets, middens, floor surfaces and even bodily features such as dental calculus on the teeth of mummified remains, can yield information.

“Biomolecules can be trapped in the dental tartar on teeth and by analysing these tiny traces, we can find evidence for the use of spices and other culinary aromas in the food consumed then,” she says.

Vitally, this kind of information holds clues to the lives of the general population in ancient societies, often overlooked in the official records that focused on rulers and the elite.

By studying remains from houses, for instance, Huber was able to confirm that inhabitants of Tayma burned frankincense at home, indicating that the oasis was not merely a transit point on the incense trade route but an active consumer. Most of the burners found in the residential quarter date to the Nabataean and Roman periods, a time when frankincense was expensive. “It can be inferred that the inhabitants could afford to purchase precious goods,” says Huber.

What kinds of disparities were there in wealth? What did the lives of the different genders look like, at the village level? It’s possible that further findings will throw light on such aspects as well, she adds.


Odeuropa: Smells replicated using AI

A depiction of smell in a Dutch painting from 1680. (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)
A depiction of smell in a Dutch painting from 1680. (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

A key clue to ancient fragrances is art. Flowers stand in for perfume; vials worn on the person, in battlefield depictions for instance, hint at odours that had to be kept at bay. Could artificial intelligence (AI) help scan art and text for such clues, and help recreate the “smell” of a time, place or scene?

A team of 38 researchers from six European countries (the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, France, UK and Slovenia) have been working since 2020 on a three-year EU-funded project called Odeuropa. “It began with the idea of using AI to detect olfactory imagery and vocabularies within digitised art collections,” says Sofia Ehrich, olfactory events and exhibitions coordinator with Odeuropa.

An AI algorithm is now being used to scan a vast dataset of books and art works from across four centuries of European history (the 17th to 20th). The dataset includes 30,000 images and over 40,000 books in six languages (English, Italian, French, Dutch, German and Slovene).

The results the algorithm throws up are analysed and classified by the team of 38, drawn from the fields of history, art history, cultural heritage, language technology, computational linguistics and heritage sciences.

The aim is to eventually replicate elements of the olfactory landscape too.

Historians and heritage researchers, for instance, have recreated the stench of the 17th-century Amsterdam’s canals. They have also worked with perfumers from the International Flavour and Fragrance corporation to recreate the spicy scent of pomanders, which were pieces of intricately carved personal jewellery worn to ward off such miasmas or bad air. The pomander scent was typically a mix of cinnamon, oregano and floral notes; perfumed leather gloves could be used too, with fragrances of jasmine, rosewater and frankincense.

“Pomanders are often visible in the hands or on the belts of portrait subjects in 16th and 17th-century artworks, dangling from a silver chain,” says Ehrich.

Most on these olfactory histories will be available to the public on the free online Encyclopaedia of Smell History and Heritage, set to be launched by the end of the year. Museums can use these narratives too, to reassess the works in their collection, and tell their stories in new ways, says Ehrich. Offline, there is a plan to recreate more smells for museums, to add another sensory dimension to exhibitions.


Cover to cover: Preserving the fragrance of old books

Cecilia Bembibre at work. (Photo: HMahgoub)
Cecilia Bembibre at work. (Photo: HMahgoub)

The smell of leather-bound books, scientists are finding, is a mix of… chocolate and coffee.

The distinct odour of old books comes from lignin, cellulose and other organic materials in the decaying paper that produces volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are similar to the aroma profiles of both chocolate and coffee, researchers at the University College London (UCL) Institute for Sustainable Heritage in the UK and University of Ljubljana Heritage Science Laboratory in Slovenia have found.

They laid out details in research papers published in the journals Analytical Chemistry in 2009 and Heritage Science in 2017.

“The scent of old books and paper has always been used by conservators to understand what the papers were made of. The smell of lignin-containing books, for example, is bittersweet and more reminiscent of vanilla, while the smell of European handmade paper from before 1850 is more similar to hay but less intense,” says Matija Strlic, co-author of the report and professor of analytical chemistry at University of Ljubljana.

The precise components of such a fragrance became vital when a beloved library in London, the Wren Library in St Paul’s Cathedral, came due for restoration. “We noticed that visitors valued the smell as an attribute of the books, and the space,” says Cecilia Bembibre, who co-authored the UCL paper with Strlic. It was mentioned often in the guestbook, as a sign of the rich history of the space.

Visitors described the aroma as a mix of woody, smoky and earthy, with a hint of vanilla (all reminiscent of the aroma profiles of aging wood and paper). Bembibre took these notes into consideration, when reproducing the aroma artificially in collaboration with perfumer Sarah McCartney.

They then tested people’s perceptions of the recreated smell, and have archived it. “This approach can be helpful for places of cultural value, in the future,” Bembibre says.

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