Roman perfume identified as patchouli

Residue of perfume found in Roman mausoleum under a private back yard in the town of Carmona, southwestern Spain, has been identified as Pogostemon cablin, aka patchouli. This is the first time a perfume from the Roman era has been conclusively identified.

The mausoleum was discovered in 2019 in the garden of a private home during renovations. The homeowner was lowering and leveling the land and demolishing a section of an old concrete wall when an arched hole emerged beneath it. Looking into the hole, the owner spied a vaulted roof. He notified the Municipal Archeology Service of the Seville City Council who dispatched an archaeologist to examine the structure.

They found a burial chamber consisting of eight loculi (burial niches), six of them containing cinerary urns of different shapes and materials (limestone, glass) and funerary objects. Two of the loculi were empty. Of the six, three contained the remains of men, and the other three the remains of women. The two empty ones show no sign of ever having been occupied.

The mausoleum was likely the tomb a wealthy local family. The vaulted ceiling and walls of the chamber were decorated with geometric intersecting lines in a vivid red and the quality of the objects point to the family having been very wealthy. The tomb had never been broken into, looted or damaged. It was found intact with the cinerary remains and funerary offerings including pots, plates, glass and ceramic drinking vessels.

Loculus number seven held an egg-shaped lead case with an egg-shaped lid. Inside the lead container was a glass cinerary urn with a lid and two large handles. Inside the closed glass urn were the remains of a cloth bag, three round amber beads and a delicate unguentarium (ointment jar) carved out of rock crystal with a sealed dolomite stopper. Inside was a solidified mass.

The grave dates to the late 1st century B.C. or the early 1st century A.D. and the vessel was so effectively sealed with bitumen and the dolomite stopper that it was still unbroken when it was found 2,000 years later. This gave archaeologists the unique opportunity to analyze the uncontaminated contents of a Roman perfume bottle.

Researchers deployed techniques such as X-ray diffraction (XRD), scanning electron microscopy–energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM–EDS), micro-Raman (µ-Raman) and Fourier transform-infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopies, and gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) to discover the chemical composition of the solid mass inside the rock crystal unguentarium and of the lid sealant.

Using bitumen to seal and waterproof the dolomite stopper was quite plausible since the unguentarium might have been made in a perfume workshop from another place in the Roman empire and subsequently purchased by the owners of the tomb. Therefore, ensuring that the unguentarium would hold its content intact for a long time required using a tightly sealed, waterproofed stopper To our knowledge, this is possibly the first time a perfume from Roman times has been identified. Based on the GC/MS analysis of the sample, the perfume in question was patchouli. The results are consistent with classical works according to which a perfume consisted of at least two different substances: an essential oil (or the plant leaves from which it was extracted) and a fatty material. The unguentarium contents’ composition is consistent with that of an extract of patchouli mixed with vegetable fat as inferred from the presence of β-sitosterol, stigmasterol and squalene. Additionally, we succeeded in identifying the material of the unguentarium stopper, which was dolomite—a previously unreported choice for this type of object.