Archaeologists were surprised to discover a 2,000 year old vase

While the contents inside this 2,000-year-old quartz bottle didn’t smell like much when it was unsealed, chemical analyses revealed its once-heady perfume: patchouli.

A surprisingly well-preserved perfume bottle is providing a rare olfactory window to ancient Rome — and letting in a familiar smell.


Chemical analyses of the contents of a 2,000-year-old bottle reveal that one of its ingredients was patchouli, researchers report May 23 in Heritage. The earthy scent is a staple in modern perfumes, but its use by the Romans was unknown until now.

The essence, in a quartz flask dating from the first century, was found in 2019 in a Roman burial in the southern Spanish town of Carmona, once an important Roman settlement. Researchers unearthed an egg-shaped lead case that held a glass urn. Inside the urn they found the flask and the cremated remains of a woman who was around 40 years old, says chemist José Rafael Ruiz Arrebola of the University of Cordoba in Spain. Cremation was a common form of burial at the time, and Romans who could afford it furnished their tombs with items to accompany the deceased into the afterlife.

The quartz bottle was by itself a luxury object in Roman times. Quartz is extremely hard, making it difficult to shape. The tiny size and exquisite detail of the object already made it a rare finding at a burial site. Even more unusual is that it was found tightly sealed with a dolomite top covered in a dark, tarlike substance that chemical analysis revealed as bitumen. Inside the jar, there was a solid mass — the preserved original content of the bottle.

Ancient written perfume recipes, while vague and incomplete, have previously revealed that Romans mixed fragrant extracts with vegetable oils, such as olive oil, as preservative. And in earlier studies, researchers have detected hints of floral extracts in bottles used to keep cosmetics — known as unguentaria. But this is the first time the source of an aroma has been identified.


Laboratory analyses revealed that the bottle contained patchouli and vegetable oil. Patchouli is derived from a tropical plant in Southeast Asia called Pogostemon cablin. It likely reached Rome through trade networks.

Subjecting the bottle’s contents to gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry identified multiple substances typical of patchouli essential oil — most importantly patchoulenol, or patchouli alcohol. To rule out nard oil, which has many components in common with patchouli oil but in different proportions, the researchers compared the results with modern samples of patchouli oil.

The bitumen seal was key in preserving the patchouli’s chemical signature. Not only did the seal keep the fragrance inside the bottle, but it also trapped the perfume molecules through a process called adsorption.

“Chemically, bitumen behaves like carbon, which is the best adsorbent for organic compounds,” Ruiz Arrebola says. The process is similar to carbon filters used in gas masks, he says. “Once adsorbed, [the molecules] aren’t volatile anymore and can’t escape.”


The extraordinary preservation of the burial site also played a role. “Being in a closed place and in total darkness is what allowed [the perfume] to make it to our days,” Ruiz Arrebola says. “Had the tomb collapsed and let light in, it wouldn’t have survived because light is the worst enemy to this type of chemical.”

The discovery fits into a growing trend of piecing together a multidimensional picture of ancient life, including its sounds and smells (SN: 5/4/22). “There are research groups and companies trying to re-create ancient perfumes,” Ruiz Arrebola says. “This will give them very important clue.”


But the finding doesn’t mean that the whole Roman Empire smelled like patchouli. “At the time, perfumes were reserved for the high society,” Ruiz Arrebola says. That the perfume was made from an exotic essence likely imported from elsewhere and bottled in a costly jar point to a wealthy proprietor, he says.

At the same time, it isn’t clear if this perfume was intended for use in daily life or had a spiritual or funerary meaning. The unopened bottle’s presence inside a funerary urn suggests an intimate gesture, not meant for public display.

“Luxury is useless if it can’t be displayed in front of society,” says historian Jordi Pérez González of the University of Girona in Spain, who was not involved with the study. “So patchouli might have been linked to the funerary world rather than to the daily life.”

Related Posts

Explore the latrines of medieval society

The medieval toilet or latrine, then called a privy or garderobe, was a primitive affair, but in a castle, one might find a little more comfort and certainly a great deal more design effort than had been invested elsewhere. Practicality, privacy, and …

Read more

Hundreds of war horse skeletons were discovered at a 2,400 year old ancient burial site

A 2,400-year-old pit containing the remains of horses and chariots believed to belong to a member of an ancient royal household has been uncovered in China. The pit is one of a cluster of tombs thought to hold the remains of noble families of the Zheng …

Read more

Ice skates made from Viking skin and horse bones were unearthed after 1,500 years

C𝚘nst𝚛𝚞cti𝚘n in Y𝚘𝚛k, En𝚐l𝚊n𝚍 𝚞n𝚎𝚊𝚛th𝚎𝚍 𝚊 Vikin𝚐 A𝚐𝚎 t𝚘wn c𝚊ll𝚎𝚍 J𝚘𝚛vik. A𝚛ch𝚊𝚎𝚘l𝚘𝚐ic𝚊l 𝚎xc𝚊v𝚊ti𝚘ns 𝚛𝚎v𝚎𝚊l𝚎𝚍 𝚊n An𝚐l𝚘-N𝚘𝚛s𝚎 w𝚘𝚛l𝚍 𝚛ich with in𝚏𝚘𝚛m𝚊ti𝚘n 𝚊𝚋𝚘𝚞t th𝚎 𝚙𝚊st. Y𝚘𝚛k sits in n𝚘𝚛th𝚎𝚊st En𝚐l𝚊n𝚍, 𝚊n𝚍 w𝚊s 𝚏𝚘𝚞n𝚍𝚎𝚍 𝚋𝚢 R𝚘m𝚊ns 𝚊𝚛𝚘𝚞n𝚍 71 CE wh𝚘 c𝚊ll𝚎𝚍 it …

Read more

Archaeologists discover casualties of Greek soldiers in 480 BC from major victory in Sicily

Wherever there is an out-of-the-way war, there will be mercenaries — hired fighters whose only common bond may be a hunger for adventure. Some join foreign armies or rebel forces because they believe in the cause; others sign on because the price is right. …

Read more

Revealing the mystery of the ‘cursed’ mummy in an ancient Egyptian coffin

Some feared the three-tonne object contained an ancient disease, while others claimed opening it would bring about the end of the world. The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, responsible for the handling of the relic, went ahead with opening the tomb …

Read more

Farmer Uncovers Enormous ‘Dinosaur Egg’ and the Shocking Surprise Within

Follow the Farmer’s Journey as he Unveils the Astonishing Truth Behind the Enigmatic Shell! In a quiet place called deep, there was a farmer named Mateo Suarez. You would think that Carlos Spegazzini is a name and not a place, but it’s not like that. …

Read more

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *