Sealed 2,000-year-old vial of Roman perfume opened by researchers

A solidified Roman-era perfume found in Carmona, in the Spanish province of Seville (University of Córdoba)
A solidified Roman-era perfume found in Carmona, in the Spanish province of Seville (University of Córdoba)

A precious vial of Roman perfume dating from around the time of Jesus has been opened, revealing what affluent ancient Romans would have smelled like back in the day.

The vial, which reportedly dates back 2,000 years, was recently studied by the professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Cordoba in Spain, who has published his findings in the journal Heritage.

Professor José Rafael Ruiz Arrebola revealed: “To our knowledge, this is possibly the first time a perfume from Roman times has been identified.”

If you’re curious about what the findings reveal about scents used thousands of years ago, here is everything their investigation revealed about the priceless perfume.

How was the perfume vial found?

The vial of perfume was discovered back in 2019, during an archaeological dig in today’s city of Carmona, near Seville, in Spain. In Roman times, the city was called Carmo.

Placed in a funerary urn in a mausoleum, the vial was perfectly sealed inside a quartz vessel.

The tomb is thought to have belonged to an affluent family, as the dig revealed the cinerary urns of three women and three men, alongside numerous objects related to Roman funeral rituals. One of the urns of an adult woman between the ages of 30 and 40 contained three amber beads and the small quartz flask that held the perfume.

Given how well it was sealed, the scent was able to withstand the test of time.

What did the perfume smell like?

To work out the perfume’s scent, the team at the University of Cordoba used X-ray diffraction, gas chromatography, and mass spectrometry.

Their study revealed the base of the perfume to be a vegetable oil that could have been olive oil. Then the main essence itself was found to be patchouli, an essential oil harnessed from a plant.

Today’s modern perfumes often include notes of patchouli, but it wasn’t known that the Romans used the scent, too. It is often describedas having a slightly sweet, warm aroma with earthy and spicy notes.

They also found that the perfume bottle’s stopper was made from dolomite, a type of mineral rock, and bitumen aggregate, similar to asphalt.