Alexandre Cabanel, "Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners" (1887) (via Wikimedia Commons)

A team who used ancient recipes to recreate an ancient Egyptian perfume perhaps worn by Cleopatra is back at it again. This time, they’re turning to chemical analysis to decipher the perfume’s exact ingredients and proportions.

In 2012, University of Hawaiʻi (UH) professors Robert Littman and Jay Silverstein uncovered a perfume manufacturing site in Mendes, Egypt, a city that flourished from around 500 BCE to 600 CE. In the neighboring UH Tell Timai excavation site, the archeologists found a complex of kilns that was once abandoned in the second century BCE before being revived centuries later by the Romans; there, they discovered perfume bottles and amphoras containing perfume residue.

The team partnered with Berlin-based Egyptologist Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin, a professor of Greek and Roman philosophy in Prague, and used “experimental archaeology” to test ancient perfume recipes. They tried different ingredients and cooked the perfumes in a variety of ways, eventually landing on one version that not only smelled good, but remained potent for two years. Littman and Silverstein exhibited their work at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC in 2019 and published their findings in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology as part of a paper titled “Eau de Cleopatra.”

Kilns at the perfume manufacturing site in the ancient city of Mendes, Egypt (photo by Jay Silverstein; courtesy University of Hawaiʻi)

In the fourth century BCE, Egyptian perfume recipes were written in Greek, and in the first century BCE, they appeared in Latin texts. In reading these accounts, one fragrance emerges as immensely popular — the Mendesian perfume from the city of Mendes. It was mentioned by many Greek and Roman writers, including Pliny the Elder, and similarly to many scents today, the connotation was one of expense and luxury. Littman calls it the “Chanel no. 5” of ancient Egypt and says it was popular during the reign of Cleopatra.

A Roman-era glass perfume dropper. Ancient perfumes were oil-based rather than alcohol-based. (photo by Jay Silverstein; courtesy University of Hawaiʻi)

It’s been difficult to determine whether the Greek and Roman recipes describe the real Egyptian Mendesian fragrance or Greek and Latin versions of the perfume, since Egyptian records of the scent are less widespread than the Greek and Roman ones. Even when studying Egyptian recipes, scholars do not always know the meaning of some words — they cannot confirm, for instance, whether the ingredient “balanos oil” refers to Maringa oil or date oil, or whether pine resin came from cedar or pine trees. These sorts of uncertainties altered the accuracy of the recipe testing. And the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic delayed their efforts to test the compounds of the residue found in the UH Tell Timai amphora.

Through a new chemical analysis, the team aims to resolve these questions and finally succeed in perfectly recreating the ancient Mendesian perfume. Littman, Silverstein, and their team plan to return to the Mendes site this summer, where they’ll bring a sample of the residue to Abdelrahman Medhat, a conservator of organic materials at the Cairo Museum.

Littman told Hyperallergic that discoveries of ancient perfumes are incredibly rare. In 2005, perfumologist Mandy Aftel recreated a perfume worn by an ancient Egyptian mummy. In 2009, scientists at Bonn University in Germany analyzed what they thought was perfume from the tomb of Hatshepsut, but turned out to be a medicated skin lotion.

“Usually they’re not going to survive, it’s an accident of survival,” Littman told Hyperallergic. The existence of the Mendes site in the modern day is a lucky one, since the perfume created there was referenced so frequently.

Egyptian-era ceramic perfume bottles (photo by Jay Silverstein; courtesy University of Hawaiʻi)

He also thinks perfume can tell us more about ancient societies than just their preferred scents. Littman, who has been excavating at the Mendes site since 2007, has developed a keen interest in the history of perfume. He views it as a lens through which to examine pubic health trends through time. When public health standards were lower, he says, people tended to wear more perfume. Deodorants and antiperspirants did not emerge until the early 20th century; instead, perfume was used to mask body odor. For example, perfume was incredibly popular in 17th-century France, when hygiene standards were relatively low.

“Most of our writings from ancient Greece and Rome and Egypt — literary stuff and documentary stuff — is all about elites. One of the things that archaeology really developed in the mid-19th century, and some of the questions we look at are, ‘What was life like? What was civilization like?'” Littman told Hyperallergic. “So when you look at perfume, perfume is an aspect of civilization.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.