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Archaeologists sniff out world's oldest perfumes

Chanel No. 4,000BC

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Archaeologists have unearthed the world's oldest perfumes on the island of Cyprus - 4,000-year-old sweet smelling concoctions brewed from lavender, bay, rosemary, pine or coriander, the Daily Telegraph reports.

The discovery was made at a 43,000 sq ft site at Pyrgos, on the south of the island, where the Italian team believes there was a vast perfume-making facility. Among the equipment left after the area was buried by an earthquake around 1850 BC were distilling stills, mixing bowls, and alabaster perfume amphorae. Lead archaeologist Maria Rosa Belgiorno enthused: "We were astonished at how big the place was. Perfumes must have been produced on an industrial scale."

While the finds can now be enjoyed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, an Italian foundation has used residues of four of the original scents to recreate them using techniques outlined by Pliny the Elder* - "grinding the herbs, adding them to oil and water, then burying them in a small long-necked jug over hot embers for 12 hours".

The results have proved a moderate success. A female museum visitor described one brew as "good, but strong", while another offered: "I can smell the pine especially." Neither "was sure that they would actually wear them", however. ®

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*A quick peruse of Pliny the Elder's illuminating Historia Naturalis, Book XIII, regarding perfumes and unguents, shows that the ancient perfume market was as competitive as it is today. Chanel No. 5 versus Rive Gauche? Plus ça change...

The perfume of iris, from Corinth, was long held in the highest esteem, till that of Cyzicus came into fashion. It was the same, too, with the perfume of roses, from Phaselis, the repute of which was afterwards eclipsed by those of Neapolis, Capua, and Præneste. Oil of saffron, from Soli in Cilicia, was for a long time held in repute beyond any other, and then that from Rhodes; after which perfume of oenanthe, from Cyprus, came into fashion, and then that of Egypt was preferred. At a later period that of Adramytteum came into vogue, and then was supplanted by unguent of marjoram, from Cos, which in its turn was superseded by quince blossom unguent from the same place. As to perfume of cyprus, that from the island of Cyprus was at first preferred, and then that of Egypt; when all on a sudden the unguents of Mendes and metopium rose into esteem.

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