Science project reviving ancient perfumes

A team of historians and scientists led by Sean Coughlin from the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences in Prague are working to rediscover the art and science of perfume-making of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece. The project, called Alchemies of Scent, was launched in 2021, and one of its aims is to recreate five different perfumes used in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Sean Coughlin | Photo: Jana Říhová,  Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences

Sean Coughlin is a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy and an associate scientist at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. For more than a year now, he and his team has been trying to rediscover the art and science of perfume-making of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece.

To find out more about Alchemies of Scent, I visited his office, tucked in an old building right in the centre of Prague. The room, filled with all sorts of glass vials, resembled an old apothecary shop, smelling of herbs and resin. After sampling some of the smells, I asked Mr Coughlin to tell me more about the project and how it came about:

“In 2012 a pair of archaeologist at the University of Hawaii, Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein, were digging at a site called Tell Timai in Egypt. Timai is an ancient city known as Thmouis in our ancient sources and it lies next to a town called Mendes, which was famous throughout Antiquity for its production of perfumes.

Recipe for Mendèsian perfume,  preserved in an 11th century Greek medical manuscript at the Laurentian Library in Florence,  Italy | Photo: Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences

“They discovered a site that seemed to have been used for processing liquids. There had been assumptions, based on historical records, that there was a perfume factory in the area, and so they immediately thought that it might be that factory.

“They also found perfume bottles and gold coins that had been buried there and because of this discovery they wanted to run some analyses of the residues in the bottles.

“They also contacted Dora Goldsmith in Berlin and myself to help with reconstructing what the perfumes might have been. That was for an exhibition at National Geographic in 2019 and it was also the impetus for this project.”

The ingredients for the Mendes perfume | Photo: Sean Coughlin,  Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences

But as far as I understand, the aim is not just to recreate some ancient perfumes.

“The aim of the project is really to test a new way of doing history. For a long time people would look at ancient medical or cosmetic or religious recipes and they would study them with their imaginations.

“What we are trying to do is to show that we can experiment a little bit with what people actually did. We just need to have the materials they had. It is an experimental way of doing history.”

What do we actually know today about history of perfumery in Ancient Greece and Egypt? What kind of information has been preserved to this day?

Photo: Christian Décamps,  Louvre Museum,  Paris

“What we know basically comes from two sets of sources. One thing we know is that these perfumes were created for religious ritual purposes. We have that evidence on the walls of temples that were built in Ptolemaic Egypt. The recipes are actually inscribed in the stone walls.

“They also tell us how they were used, what they were for and they have lists of ingredients. So we can use all that information to figure out how they were made.

“The second thing we know about ancient perfumes is that they were used for medical purposes. These were often ointments that were used for healing skin diseases or for curing headaches or for warding off plague.”

Photo: Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences

So when we talk about ancient perfumes, they were used in much wider sense than they are used today. Is that right?

“I think it’s convenient to think about perfumes in Antiquity very much as we think of perfumes today. Much like today, people would use perfumes for sexual attraction. And much like today, people would use them for cleanliness, to mask bad odours.

“The difference, if we want to talk about a difference between perfumes today and perfumes of the past, is that we tend to think of them as something that comes in a bottle and is dissolved in alcohol.

Photo: Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences

“Whereas if we talk about perfumes in Antiquity, it includes all the range of scented things, including lotions, soaps, and even things for doing your laundry. All of these have a scent and all of these would have been perfume products,  and they were used even for  religious purposes.

“Very often, people would use certain scented oils or burn incense in order to make an offering to divine entities or to make a space that is divine itself. This is something people do to today and something people did in the past.

“Connected with that is the use of these in magical contexts. That’s because perfume has always been seen as a material in the art of transmutation, of changing something into something else.”

An important part of your project is to recreate some of the perfumes from Ancient Greece and Egypt. What does that process look like? What do you know about the techniques that were used at the time?

“The process involves creatign two libraries. On the one hand is a library of materials where we are acquiring all of the resins and aromatic fluids and seeds from the Mediterranean Egypt and the Middle East.

Photo: Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences

“We have a colleague at the Institute for Experimental Botany, Jan Rezek, who is doing this work for us. And then we have a lexicon, this kind of written library, where we collect all of the different words and ztheir possible meanings.

Jan Rezek | Photo: Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences

“And then we begin to design experiments, which is a very laborious project. We test each variable and see what we come up with. We quantify it using the chemical equipment and then we begin to compare that with archaeological evidence, such as residue analyses.”

Your goal is to recreate five different perfumes. How far are you in the process?

“It is a mystery that we think we are close to cracking, and this is the mystery of Stacte. Stacte is a Greek word but it also shows up in Egyptian context as Medjet and it seems to go across many different cultures.

“We actually have a recipe in Egyptian and Greek that describes a similar process for creating a liquid myrrh.

Photo: Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences

"It involves mixing the myrrh with a little bit of water and then pressing it through a kind of sieve. And you get something very much like this ointment at the end.

“What’s differs myrrh from other resins is that it actually forms a suspension with water. What you get is a very liquid and non-sticky substance that you can put on the skin and it smells of myrrh.”

Why have you chosen Stacte as the first perfume to replicate?

“Stacte is the first for two reasons. One is that it is the basis for a lot of later perfumes. Its main ingredient is myrrh, which is pretty much the main ingredient in any Egyptian perfume from the period that we are looking at.

Photo: Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences

“The second reason is that it is the simplest. It is supposed to be the only simple uncompounded perfume. This is what our sources tell us. There is just one ingredient and from this one ingredient you get a perfume that everyone uses.

“So it is a simple starting point. What is the interaction between myrrh and water? That is our first scientific question.”

Alchemies of Scent were launched at the Philosophical Institute at the Academy of Sciences but it involves experts from various fields. How many people take part in the project?

“It is a truly interdisciplinary project and that is what makes it so exciting. We have two Egyptologists on our team, Heike Wilde and Diana Míčková, who are working on understanding the evidence from Egyptian temples and what that can tells us.

Heike Wilde | Photo: Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences

“We also have Martin Pehal, who is working at the Institute of Philosophy at Charles University. He is collaborating on the Egyptian side as well, because he is an expert in symbolism and ritual.

“On the chemical side we have colleagues at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry. We have Jan Rezek, who I mentioned, who is working on characterising all of our botanicals. And we also have archaeometrists and archaeologists from the team in Egypt at the site of Tell Timai.

“On top of that we also work with olfactory artists and perfumers who have a modern understanding of the ingredients. We have also been working with the playwrights at the Department of Classics at the Institute of Philosophy.

“So we are just working with a huge range of people to understand the topic from lots of different perspectives.”

Photo: Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences

You also run public workshops. Does it mean that people can actually try their hand at making an ancient perfume?

“We run public workshops where we offer two things. First is that people can come in and follow an ancient recipe with us and make a perfume that they can take home with them.

“But we are also encouraging citizen science, which benefits us as well as the public.

Photo: Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences

“We have people who will come to the workshop, make a perfume according to their interpretation of the recipe. They record it for us and then they keep us updated every couple of weeks.

"They tell us how their perfume is going, they send us pictures and fill us in and these are things we can include in our long-term studies.”

We have been talking about the five perfumes that you are trying recreating and you also mentioned the lexicon of Greco-Egyptian perfumery. What else will be the outcome of this five-year project?

“What’s different about our lexicon is that it is historical. It actually records how people throughout history understood these terms. All of that information hasn’t been available in one place, so we have put it together for researchers throughout the world to use.

Sean Coughlin | Photo: Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences

“We are also going to have a book of perfumery, or a catalogue of everything that we have been attempting to do here.

“I am also working on a book on art and nature in ancient Greece, and Heike is working on a book on ritual perfumery and aromatics in Egypt.

“We are hoping to expand the project in the future, because there are many people who got really interested in collaborating on something like this.

“We would also like to teach the public that the history of science is something they can actually experience directly and that is is actually much more close to home than they might have imagined.”

Photo: Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences