Scent of the Past: Unearthing an ancient Roman perfume in Seville Mausoleum

Archaeologists in Seville discovered a well-preserved mausoleum from 2,000 years ago containing a quartz container with solid residues of perfume.
Kavita Verma
The composition of a more than 2,000-year-old Roman perfume has been determined for the first time by a research team from the University of Cordoba.
The composition of a more than 2,000-year-old Roman perfume has been determined for the first time by a research team from the University of Cordoba.

University of Córdoba 

A stunningly well-preserved 2,000-year-old tomb was discovered in 2019 while construction crews were renovating a building in Seville's Carmona municipality. Six wealthy family members were interred in the same grave inside the mausoleum. 

A quartz jar wrapped in a linen bag and several amber stones were found among the donations. This object, which is thought to be a perfume bottle, has subsequently been the subject of in-depth investigation and examination by a group of researchers.

Unveiling the fragrance of the Roman Empire

The University of Cordoba's FQM346 research team, under the direction of Professor José Rafael Ruiz Arrebola and in cooperation with the City of Carmona, undertook a chemical examination of the perfume bottle. The bottle was discovered to be perfectly sealed, keeping the solid remnants of the perfume inside. It was carved from quartz, a unique and expensive material for that time. 

The researchers were able to identify the perfume elements from the first century AD using various instrumental techniques, including X-ray diffraction and gas chromatography combined with mass spectrometry.

The research published in the Swiss journal Heritage showed that the perfume had two main ingredients. The base or binder—possibly vegetable oil—acted as a preservative for the aromatic essences. 

Patchouli is an essential oil derived from the Indian plant Pogostemon cablin that is commonly used in modern perfumes but was previously unrecognized as having been utilized in Roman times. An ancient Roman writer, Pliny the Elder described the essence as containing this oil.

To preserve the scent and its contents, dolomite was used as a stopper, and bitumen was used to seal the container. The perfume bottle's outstanding level of preservation offered a unique chance to "smell" the aromas of the former Roman Empire.

The tomb's colossal design and the vessel's superb craftsmanship suggest that the scent was of high worth. This finding advances our knowledge of the ancient Romans' cultural practices and provides insightful information about their olfactory preferences.

The study’s significance

The study clarifies the history of perfumery and emphasizes the importance of the Carmona mausoleum as an important archaeological site. This amazing discovery offers a unique window into the past and a visceral link to the scents that once filled the Roman Empire.

Study Abstract: 

Although archaeological excavations have recovered a large number of vessels used to hold perfumes or ointments in ancient Rome, little is known about the chemical composition or origin of the substances they contained. Most available information pertains to ointment and/or cosmetic bases rather than to essences. The discovery in 2019 of an ointment jar (unguentarium) made of rock crystal (quartz) that was sealed with a stopper and contained a solid mass in a Roman tomb in Carmona (Seville, Spain) was a rather unusual finding. This paper reports the results of an archaeometric study of the unguentarium stopper and its contents. Based on them, and on comparisons with commercially available patchouli and nard oil standards, the perfume held in the unguentarium was probably patchouli. To our knowledge, this may be the first time a perfume from Roman times has been identified, which is a major advance in this field. The unguentarium stopper consisted of dolomite, a material also unknown in this type of use, and bitumen was used to seal the unguentarium with the stopper.