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 in a site called Tell Timai in Egypt. Timai is an ancient city known as Thmouis in our ancient sources and it’s next to a town called Mendes, which was famous throughout Antiquity for its production of perfumes.
“When they were digging they discovered a site that looked to have been for processing liquids. And there had been a long time ago a prediction that there would be a perfume factory in the area because of the historical records. And so immediately they were hopeful that this might be that perfume factory.
“They also found buried with it perfume bottles and they found a lot of gold coins that had been hidden there. Because of this discovery they wanted to run some analyses on the residues that they found in the bottles.
“They also contacted Dora Goldsmith in Berlin and myself to help with reconstructing what the perfume might have been. That was for an exhibition at National Geographic in 2019 and it was the impetus for this project.”
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 these things might have been.
“What we are trying to do is say that we can experiment a little bit with what people actually did. We just need to have the materials that 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?
“What we know basically comes from two sets of sources. One thing we know is that these things were created for religious ritual purposes and we have that evidence on the walls of temples that were built in Ptolemaic Egypt where they actually wrote down the recipes, inscribed in stone on the walls.
“They also tell us how they were used, what they were for and they have lists of ingredients on the walls and we can then 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.”
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. So 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 narrow them to the things that usually come in a bottle dissolved in alcohol and you spray them.
“Whereas if we talk about perfumes in Antiquity, it includes all of the range of the scented things that we are used to today, such as lotions, soaps, even things for doing your laundry. All of these have a scent and all of these would have been perfume products, even going as far as religious institutions.
“Very often today people will use in religious certain scented oils or burn incense for two reasons. One is to make an offering to divine entities and the other one is to make a space that is divine itself. This is something people do to today and something people did in the past.
“And 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?
“What the process looks like is that we take two libraries that we are creating. 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, collecting them and quantifying the chemical compounds in them.
“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 that we collect of all of the different words and what they might be.
“And then we begin to design experiments, which is a very laborious project. We just test each variable and see what we come up with at the end. We quantify it using the chemical equipment again and then we begin to compare that with archaeological evidence, such as residue analyses, and we compare that with our written records.”
Your goal is to recreate five different perfumes. How far are you in the process?
“We got into a serious work on one. 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 other people have argued that it’s similar to what we find in the Nikarotrra called Nataf, which means to drip. And it seems to go across a whole bunch of different cultures.
“No one has really known what this is. It seems to come from myrrh, but we don’t have any liquid myrrh around. We actually have a recipe in Egyptian and Greek that describe a similar process for creating a liquid myrrh.
“So this is what we are looking at and comparing. 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 different about myrrh from other resins is that it actually forms a suspension with water and so you get a kind of very liquid and not sticky substance that you can then put on the skin and it just 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’s 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.
“The second reason is it’s the simplest. It is supposed to be the only simple uncompounded perfume. This is what our sources tell us. One ingredient and from this one ingredient you get a perfume that everyone uses.
“So it’s a simple starting point. What is the interaction between myrrh and water? That’s our first kind of scientific question.”
Alchemies of Scents 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. This is what makes it so exciting. We have two Egyptologists on our team, Heike Wilde and Diana Míčková and they are working on understanding the evidence from Egyptian temples and what that can tells us.
“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 collaboration for Experimental Botany, Jan Rezek, who I mentioned, who is working on characterising all of our botanicals. And then beyond that we have archaeometrists and archaeologists from the team in Egypt at the site of Tell Timai.
“And 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 this from a lots of these different perspectives.”
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 following this recipe that the can take home with them.
“But we are also encouraging citizen science, and this benefits us as well as the public. We have so many materials and there are so many different ways that a perfume could be made.
“We have people who will come to the workshop, make a perfume according to their interpretation of what they think the recipe is saying to do.
“They record it for us and then they keep us updated every couple of weeks, tell us how their perfume is going, 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 what people throughout history have though these thing are. All of that information hasn’t been available in one place, so we have put it together for researchers throughout the world to use.
“We are also going to have a book of perfumery, or a catalogue of everything that we have been attempting to do here, as well as our own research endeavours.
“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.
“Of course we are hoping to expand the project because there has just been a lot of people who got really interested in collaborating on something like this, so we are hoping to keep it going and to start something larger.
“There is also the maybe more intangible but I think equally important and that is to teach the public that the history of science is something they can actually experience directly and it’s actually much more close to home than they might have imagined.”
This content was originally published here.