Ancient scents recreated by Italian archaeological team

4,000-year-old process used oil and essences

By Demetra Molyva

EXQUISITE scents that would have been used by women 4,000 years ago have been recreated by Italian archaeologists working at Pyrgos Mavroraki, in the Limassol district.
It’s amazing,” said the mission’s head archaeologist, Professor Maria Rosaria Belgiorno, who brought the perfume samples to the island. “We copied the exact method used at the site 4,000 years ago, when perfume was based on oil and made with water in a five-day process,” she said. The perfumes were copied in Italy and the scientists hope that they can be manufactured to help fund the excavations.
Pyrgos/Mavroraki is a site spanning from 2350BC to 1850BC. Belgiorno, working for Italy’s National Research Council, said that areas had been recovered at Pyrgos during five seasons of excavations, including a palace on which her team of archaeologists is currently working.

Olive oil
The site also offers evidence of olive oil used as fuel for copper metallurgy revolutionising archaeological thinking on during the Bronze Age, around 1900BC. She said the whole process of copying the perfume took about six months as her team of scientists had to wait to gather the seasonal essences from February to July this year.
For each perfume, the process took about five days and the mixture was enclosed in a jug buried under the sand in the sunlight at a temperature of no more than 50 degrees, to avoid damaging the mixture. The four scents produced are ‘Afrodite,’ ‘Elena,’ ‘Artemides’ and ‘Era.’ ‘Afrodite’ contains olive oil, pine, turpentine and bergamot. ‘Elena’ has scents of olive oil, laurel, coriander and turpentine. In ‘Artemides,’ almonds, myrtle, parsley and turpentine are used and, for ‘Era,’ olive oil, rosemary, green anise and lavender.

The four fragrances are musky, olive oil based and long-lasting.

Belgiorno told The Cyprus Weekly that in the excavations at Pyrgos, she and her team now know that they are working on the remains of a Palace from the early Bronze Age. The site, Belgiorno said, was used as an industrial complex, to produce wine 3,000 years before it was made in Greece. Perfumes were also made, using essences that are included in well-known modern known fragrances. Textiles dyed with purple or blue indigo, were created on the site. “For the essences, we copied the entire process, step by step, as was done, 4,000 years ago, putting the essences into a closed jug underground, in the sunlight for five days. But the entire process for the four different essences took about six months, because we had to wait for the seasonal essences to come out of the herbs,” Belgiorno said.
Belgiorno, in a recent book entitled ‘Aromata Cipria,’ (Cyprus Perfumes), says that in the Bronze Age and during the first millennium BC, Cyprus played a role of major importance in the eastern Mediterranean, trading copper and olive oil. “Jars of small dimensions (around 80cm) have been found in tombs, mainly at Pyrgos, positioned near the entrance. The type suggests that they contained olive oil, evidence that underlines the cultural importance given to this product in Cyprus in the early Bronze Age,” she said.

Belgiorno continues that it is common archaeological opinion that the foothills of the Troodos mountains sloping to the sea and rich in copper minerals and olive trees, were the areas from where the most ancient Cypriot civilisation started and evolved. “The cooperation between copper production and availability of agricultural resources was the first condition and settle of production was the first condition that improved the constitution and settle of production and copper smelting centres.
“ In addition, the copper was not the only product exported during the Bronze Age. At the time, the island was luxuriant and forested.” She adds that the desertification problem and water scarcity were completely unknown and the hot Mediterranean climate favoured every agricultural activity. “Cypriot prehistoric society evolved during the Bronze Age as an economic system founded on copper production and storage of primary necessity agricultural products.”

“Olive oil, notes Belgiorno, was one of the most important and became the basic ingredient for making medicaments, cosmetics, perfumes and soft textiles. They used it as the most effective fuel to smelt copper and bronze alloys. She added: “But we now know that the entire olive tree, wood, leaves, roots and waste remains of the olive press could be used and reused for many different industrial and domestic purposes.”
Speaking of the ancient methods used to make perfumes, Belgiorno says in her book: “It is possible to extract essential oils and perfumed waters with the same system, as during boiling, the terpenes - tiny particles of fragrant plants, transported by vapour - pass the alembic head into a collecting jar. At the end of the operation, the essential oils float on the water surface and it is easy to separate them from the water.”
The procedure, she adds, appears simple for a modern point of view but in the third millennium BC, it was different. The distillation methodology should follow serious rules including the system and duration of boiling, and cooling as the final stage.

Neck shape
“The vase used at Pyrgos as a condenser, was probably one of the large metallic ware jugs, whose neck shape and dimension is correct to contain the alembic spout and the base perfect to say inside a water basin. “Six jugs of this type and dimension, all crushed, have been found in the Pyrgos perfumery: three were on the bench running along the eastern wall, two among the pits for maceration and one in north west corner, where there were two alembic heads and two large basins.
“The experiments made to reconstruct the apparatus confirm that the shape and dimensions of the jugs are correct not only to be used as condensers but also as boilers (going inside the alembic head) which find a perfect support on the jug shoulders,” said Belgiorno.
Speaking of her excavation work at Pyrgos, Belgiorno notes that the eastern side of the olive pressroom hosted the perfumed industry. Pyrgos revealed, Belgiorno says, that in addition to olive oil, the perfume makers used essences such as coriander, bergamot, turpentine, bitter almonds, bay leaves, myrtle and parsley.
She added that bay leaves were used for the experiments conducted at the Antiquities Centre in Italy.
Describing the process used by her team of archaeologists and scientists for copying the ancient perfumes, Belgiorno said: “In our experiment, we found that direct contact between the jug and the embers quickly raised the temperature in the liquid. Using a thermocouple to calculate the temperature inside the jug, 15 minutes after the start of the heat treatment, we found that it was 84C. This is rather high. Based on the literature, 55C was the right temperature for extracting essences. Thanks to a mistake in our procedure for making fragrant essences, we were able to see how hard it is to maintain the jug temperature constant from the outset.”

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