Antic Perfumes and scented-oils : Chemical and paleogenetic analyses of organic contents from ancient western Mediterranean Sea

Funded by the ANR (Agence Nationale de la Recherche)


The texts provide us, for Hellenistic and Roman periods, the most numerous information on perfumes as well as some archaeological searches of workshops. For the more ancient periods, sources are differents and less eloquent, except as regards the Egyptian world. However,-scented oils played a critical economic and cultural role in preRoman Mediterranean Sea. The small packagings, discovered by dozens thousands, manifest the importance of these-scented fats which disappeared but that can be revealed by chemical and paleogenetic analyses. 


1. Construct a know-how acknowledged in the field of expertise and in analysis of archeological organic wastes and found a multidisciplinary acknowledged team which can have an international audience.

2. Test new techniques of analyses by coupling the physicochemical analyses with analyses of DNA, on one hand to try to differentiate the lipids of animal origin and those of plant origin, on the other hand to make out a will if sequences of plants can be identified in composite rests, possibly heated.

A Phoenician ceramic not yet excavated and sampled


1. Surround the techniques of manufacture as well as the modalities of broadcasting and use of perfume in western Mediterranean Sea during the antic period, 

2. Contribute to identify by chromatographic and AND analyses a fan of plant and animal raw materials used in western Mediterranean Sea in the manufacture of perfumes, 

3. Offer by confronting results acquired in other available sources (archeological, epigraphical, textual, iconographic) from models of production, broadcasting and use of perfume by trying to surround cultural and geographical distinctive identities as well as elements of continuity and those of historical break.

Methods and techniques

The identification of ancient organic materials rests on the interpretation of molecular associations kept and identified by different techniques. Two archeometric techniques were in the earth of program Perhamo, on one hand the organic chemical analysis and on the other hand the paleogenetic. It is in effect necessary to implement complex but competitive techniques as well as analytical methodology sometimes heavy. In effect, the natural materials are composed of hundreds or even of thousand molecules belonging to different chemical families: lipids, proteins, polysaccharides (or sugars) and polyphénols. The organic analysis does not treat nucleotides from which the analysis is specifically recovering of the AND.

These two disciplines prove to be supplementary and are consequently adapted to the identification of organic substances (visible or invisible) trapped inside ceramic, glassy, faïence and stone packagings. More than ancient 200 packagings were chosen to be the object of samples and of archeological studies. The chemical and genetic analyses made from samples, sometimes supplemented by palynologic analyses, gave results which concern not only the subjects of plant and animal origin used in scented oils but also certain methods of manufacture of perfumes.

Principal results : 

The basic components scented fats were identified. Different vegetable oils, animal fats, notably ruminants, were used as excipient. The wax of honeybee played a very important role as well as resin and pitch, these two subjects that can make service of fixatives of smells but being able to also be used to waterproof the inside of packagings. Dairy products are of the same numerous, certifying due to the fact that we are probably dealing with smooth creams with pharmaceutical dimension as much as cosmetic. Essence is drawn in most cases of common Mediterranean plant environment, except some exceptions as camphor and citrus fruit. The techniques of boiling and enfleurage with heat were spotted and allow to give rise to proposals of reconstitution as part of a plan of experimental archaeology (Valopac: Promotion of a Cosmetic Heritage) ongoing in the Université de Bretagne Sud.

Scientific production

Three collective works of synthesis allowed to make a state of knowledge and problems linked to the ancient sweet-scented oils and to found an international multidisciplinary team constituted by historians, by archaeologists, by epigraphists, by chemists, by geneticists and by botanists. A final collective work, « Archaeology of oils perfumed in western Mediterranean Sea », in the course of publication in editions of the Centre Jean Bérard, will introduce a party of the results of program Perhamo as well as different themes which could be renewed thanks to these results. Several articles in local, national and international magazines, participation with numerous symposiums and seminaries, allowed to introduce stakes, objectives and a party of the results of this program.

Factual information

Perhamo is a program of basic research coordinated by UMR 8546 (AOROC, ENS Paris) in collaboration with the Institute of Génomique Fonctionnelle of Lyons (UMR 5242 of the NATIONAL CENTRE FOR SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH) and the Laboratory Nicolas Garnier de Vic-le-Comte. This plan, which benefited from a 220000-euro help of ANR, begins in January, 2008 and ended in June, 2011.

Foodstuffs, Dairy products, Fermented beverages, Medicinal and Cosmetic products, Perfumes, Aromatic materials in the Mediterranean and West-European areas. This scientific notebook presents the bioarchaeology research programs of the Temos laboratory (CNRS, UMR 9016).

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