The archeology of smell: Behind this UH professor's ongoing quest for Cleopatra's perfume
Robert Littman and a team of perfume experts, archeologists and historians are still waiting to see if their decades-long hunt may finally pay off.
Thousands of years have passed since anyone knew what Cleopatra's perfume smelled like, but University of Hawaii professor Robert Littman hopes he'll know for certain soon.
He spent the last half-century in pursuit of such answers while teaching and mastering the Greek classics, ancient medicine and archaeology.
After a decade-long dig in Cairo, Littman and colleagues around the world may have uncovered residue of a perfume that has been dubbed the "Chanel No.5 of late antiquity." It is highly likely to have been worn by the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom herself. But will they be right? And when will they know for sure?
They're so close to getting answers, they can almost smell it.
Littman, 78, who celebrated his 50th anniversary at UH Mānoa last year, thought he and his colleagues would have the answer by now. They first uncovered the possible perfume residue around 2012.
But a global pandemic hampered their plans to test the compounds of the ancient residue they found in the UH Tell Timai excavation site in Egypt.
The site, according to Littman, "was once the flourishing city of Mendes, from about 500 B.C. to about 600 A.D., and was a settlement of ancient Egyptians followed by Greeks, and then Romans."
Every summer since the beginning of the project in 2007, students at UH Mānoa have had the opportunity to go to Egypt and participate in the archaeological dig at the site with Littman, with the long-term goal of reconstructing the entire city.
Researchers have already reconstructed the perfume recipe using modern ingredients. But for now, Littman and others are still waiting to see if what they found really is an ancient Egyptian perfume in the last leg of a journey that extends from Hawaii, to the sands of Egyptian catacombs, to labs in Berlin and Prague.
A life of digging
Littman, a professor of Classics at UH Mānoa, is a world renowned scholar in Greek history and literature, ancient medicine, and archaeology.
By the age of 14, Littman had read the entirety of Homer's work (in Greek), and went from washing dishes in a commercial kitchen for 60 cents an hour, to tutoring college students in calculus when he was 15 years old.
Now, at 78, after an education at both Columbia and the University of Oxford, a career at Columbia, Rutgers, and Brandeis, Littman is currently teaching a class in Egyptian Hieroglyphics, and another in Greek, Roman, and Ancient Myths at UH.
This summer, he plans to return to the Tell Timai site with 10 students from UH. Littman said the spots for next year's trip have already been booked in advance, and will cost each student approximately $4,000, which covers expenses, room and board, but not airfare.
In 2012, Littman, co-director of the Tell Timai site, Jay Silverstein — who at the time was an affiliate professor at UH — and their team of Egyptian staff uncovered a possible manufacturing center. Soon after, Silverstein said their Egyptian staff came across the ancient residue.
About 90 miles northeast of Cairo, Thmouis, which Littman translated as "New Land," is the southern suburb of the city Mendes, located in the Nile Delta. Mendes is now known as Timai El Amdid, next to a hill where the excavation is sited. The site itself is about the size of the UH Mānoa campus, Littman said.
An ancient manufacturing center
Spices were imported from all over the world to Mendes, Littman said, including from India, Arabia and Africa, making Mendes a major center of the perfume trade from about 300 B.C. to about 800 A.D.
During the third century B.C., the ancient city of Thmouis produced a perfume, which was named after the main city and called the Mendesian perfume. That's the one Littman considers to be the "Chanel No. 5" of late antiquity – Cleopatra's perfume.
Although no one can prove with absolute certainty which perfumes Cleopatra used, Littman said, "We have an account from the biographer, Plutarch, written about 100 years later, that says Cleopatra doused her sails in scents and incense when she first went to meet Marc Antony, so that when she sailed up the river to meet him, one could smell her fragrance along the river."
However, to excavate in Egypt, permits must be obtained from the Supreme Council of Antiquities, an Egyptian government entity. Littman and co-director Silverstein were initially granted that permission, but due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, Silverstein has been unable to return to Egypt since January 2020, and the permit they had expired.
Now, they are in the process of re-submitting their paperwork and waiting for approval. The permit, in short, is to transfer the residue that was found at the Tell Timai site, from an armed storage facility to the laboratory where it will be tested. The paperwork is a necessary hurdle.
"One must remember that archaeology in Egypt, and in most of the world, was a colonial affair for much of history. So when countries were able to reassert their control over their antiquities, they didn't want to make the mistake of allowing colonial powers to work without their permission," Silverstein said.
Silverstein said this particular storage facility was under attack twice during the uprising in Egypt 10 years ago, wounding one of the guards. "They have dedicated people who put their lives on the line to protect these antiquities," Silverstein said.
Silverstein plans to transfer the materials this summer. Once the transfer happens, he expects that they will have results of the residue within 30 days.
Silverstein said that Abdelrahman Medhat, who is the Conservator of Organic Materials at the Cairo Egyptian Museum, will be using a series of different techniques for analyzing the residue.
First, he will break down what are the organic compounds, then match them to the appropriate plants from which they're likely derived. He'll then be able to compare the plants that he's identified to the formulas and recipes known for perfumes. That could tell researchers which ancient perfume the residue came from.
Though Silverstein said there were some Egyptian scholars who were concerned about the association of the perfume with Cleopatra, researchers connected the two because of the time period.
Cleopatra even wrote a book on perfumes. Although the book did not survive, it was often referenced by other authors, and in particular, noted the medicinal characteristics of perfume.
"The Mendesian being the most famous perfume at that time certainly means it was something that she was aware of and involved in, both collecting and early, in controlling the selling of, in the Greco-Roman world," Silverstein said.
Littman likened perfume recipes to homemade stews.
"Anyone can tell you what's in a basic meat and potato stew, but everyone that makes stew has their own take on it, and each time they make it, it may not necessarily be the same. You might add something or be out of an ingredient and just make do. The analysis tells us precisely what is in the residue," he said.
Is it really Cleopatra's perfume?
Silverstein believes the residue could come from a Mendesian, or another type of perfume such as a Metopian or Kyphi.
"I strongly suspect that it's one of those three, but I wouldn't commit to any one at this point," Silverstein sad, "It could even be that the residue may contain elements of all three if they reused the pots, you know — today we're making Metopian, tomorrow we're making Mendesian, and now we're making Kyphi."
The possible perfume residue was found in an exposed fragment of the bottom of an amphora, which is a tall ancient Greco-Roman container used to store various products, both liquid and dry, such as oil, wine, grains and perfume.
The possible manufacturing center discovered by Littman and Silverstein — if confirmed — would be one of the very few perfume factories identified from the period and place. Perhaps even the only one.
Dora Goldsmith, an Egyptologist who is in the final stages of completing her PhD at the Freie Universität Berlin and specializes in the sense and archaeology of smell in ancient Egypt, agreed that because the residue was found in Mendes, which was known as the center of perfumery in late antiquity, it is logical to assume that the residue is from a perfume.
But she suggested that the residue could be anything and might not be perfume at all.
"That's why you do the analysis," Goldsmith said. "Because you just don't know, and there can be very big surprises when you analyze something. What you expect and what is actually in the bottle could be very different."
Recreating an ancient scent
Goldsmith, who Littman contacted after the residue was uncovered, was brought on to the research team to recreate the Mendesian perfume.
By collaborating with Sean Coughlin, a historian of Greco-Roman philosophy and science at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, the two experimented with different materials, ingredients, and approaches – one process took 67 days – and recreated a sample of Mendesian perfume.
The experiment was funded by National Geographic. The final sample Goldsmith and Coughlin produced became a part of the "Queens of Egypt" exhibition at the National Geographic Museum, where patrons were able to take a whiff of several Egyptian-style perfumes and scents, including blue lotus, cardamom, and the Mendesian perfume recreated by Goldsmith and Coughlin.
Goldsmith and Coughlin began recreating the perfume based on an 11th century manuscript from the medical books of Paul of Aegina, a 7th-century Byzantine Greek physician. They cross-referenced the recipe found in the manuscript with other sources, eventually finding the most probable ingredients, methods, and quantities.
Goldsmith and Coughlin used two different oils, balanites and moringa, at different temperatures, and tested both oils by combining myrrh (a gum-resin extracted from a tree), cinnamon, and resin, all of which were ground finely in a mortar.
"There's not really a recipe from a modern perspective," Goldsmith said, "It's not a very typical recipe, because it's a transmission of knowledge in antiquity between two cultures."
Goldsmith explained that when the Greeks took over Egypt, ancient Egyptians were unwilling to share their recipes for perfumes because the recipes were sacred to them. Goldsmith has learned from translations of ancient writings that the Egyptians may have succeeded in keeping many of their perfumes hidden from the Greeks.
In their findings, Goldsmith and Coughlin discovered that the oils they used had different reactions to heat. Specifically, moringa oil "smelled burnt" when heated, and the unheated moringa "went rancid, and eventually developed a white growth" after several weeks, Coughlin said.
Their final combination of ingredients, method, and temperatures, produced "an extremely pleasant, elegant and sweet scent," that primarily smelled of myrrh and cinnamon, and "remained potent for almost two years."
"The Mendesian would be something that's supposed to be moistening and warming you up, so it was also used to kind of bring balance back that way, or even applied to treat a wound," Coughlin said.
The Mendesian recipe could be repurposed for other uses, like alleviating hangovers. The recipe would be mixed with goose fat, and put on a bandage to be wrapped around the head of the user, Coughlin said.
Scents and incense could also be used to mask or help remove human waste, Littman said. He added, the widespread individual use of perfume in subsequent generations is because frequent bathing is a relatively modern phenomenon.
In contrast to modern day perfumes, which usually contain oils that have been dissolved in alcohol, ancient perfumes were primarily oil-based, and, according to Goldsmith and Coughlin, were dispensed in almost "a lotion-like consistency."
"The Mendesian perfume opened up a world of scent composing that hadn't been there before," Coughlin said. "The classical recipe for the Mendesain stays pretty much intact. It's actually remarkable. From all the evidence that we have, we know that the recipe doesn't change from the moment it appears in the Greek or Latin sources for 800 years. It's just like a brand name. You know, like, Chanel No. 5 doesn't change. It just stays the same."
Yet unlike Chanel No. 5, which is available to anyone who can afford it, Coughlin said his research suggests that the Egyptian Pharaohs had a monopoly on the production, and possibly the sale of the Mendesian perfume. Meaning that if you wanted Mendesian, you had to buy it from the state.
However, Goldsmith has made the Mendesian more accessible to the modern day public by putting together do-it-yourself kits, which she's made available online.
But without an analysis of the residue Littman and his team found, there's still no way of knowing if the residue really is the remnant of a Mendesian perfume. That hasn't stopped researchers like Goldsmith from asking questions about the role smell played in ancient cultures.
"I was curious about the sense that they describe when they say something smells divine," Goldsmith said, "Or something smells exceedingly pleasant, or something smells bad, or the garden smell, or the smell of temple, or the smell of love making — what does that mean?"
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