Sean Coughlin is a research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy and an associate scientist at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Academy of Sciences in Prague. For over a year, he and his team have been trying to rediscover the art and science behind ancient Greek and Egyptian perfumery.
The project called The Alchemy of Perfume started in 2021. Sean Coughlin talks about his upbringing.
In 2012, two archaeologists from the University of Hawaii, Robert Littmann and Guy Silverstein, excavated at a place called Tell Timae in Egypt. Timai is an ancient city known as Thmouis according to ancient sources and is close to a town called Mendes, which in ancient times was famous for the production of perfume. When they were digging, they discovered a place that appears to have been used to process fluids. And it was expected, according to ancient events, that there would be a perfume factory in that area. So they immediately hoped that the discovery was the perfume factory. They also found some perfume bottles as well as many gold coins hidden there. Because of this discovery, they wanted to analyze the remains they found in the bottles. They also contacted Dora Goldsmith in Berlin and I to help them reconstruct the fragrance that may have been in the bottles. That was for the National Geographic exhibition in 2019 and it was the impetus for this project.”
Coughlin says that the project goes beyond recreating perfumes from antiquity, it’s testing a new way of making history.
Perfumes are recreated from information preserved to this day. The researchers took two sources as reference. First of all, the frescoes of the temples of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, where recipes were engraved in stone on the walls. The purpose of perfumes is also described, in most cases they were used for religious purposes, but they can also be used in the field of medicine.
Coughlin points out that when talking about perfumes of antiquity, they should be understood as fragrances quite similar to those that exist today. The uses that people gave them are not very different from those used today, for example, their use in religious works, as is the case with incense. Usually one motive is to make an offering to divine entities and the other is to make a “divine” space in itself. It’s something people have done and are still doing.
The process of recreating the perfumes of ancient Greece and ancient Egypt is very complex.
“For the process, we take two files that we create. On the one hand, one of the materials in which we acquire all resins and aromatic liquids, as well as seeds from the Mediterranean, Egypt and the Middle East, collect them and quantify the chemical compounds they contain. We have a fellow at the Institute of Botany Experimental, Jan Rezek, who does this work for us. And then we have a lexicon, a written file that we collect from all the different words and what they might be. And so we started designing experiments, which is a very tedious project. We test every variable and see what we find in the end. We quantify them Using the chemical equipment again and then we started comparing it to archaeological evidence, like analyzing the remains, and comparing it to our written records.”
In principle, the goal of the project is to recreate five different fragrances. They are currently focused on one. Coughlin says it looks like they’re about to sort it out. The first fragrance they repeat is Gentlemen. Despite the Greek origin of its name, it has also been found in some documents from ancient Egypt. At the moment, they have little information about the origin of this fragrance, other than the fact that it appears to be derived from the myrrh plant.
Choosing Stacte as the first perfume to be cloned is due to two reasons. The first is that it is the basis of many later perfumes. Its main component is myrrh, which is practically the main component of any known Egyptian perfume of that period. The second reason is that it is the only simple fragrance that does not contain compounds.
The project was launched at the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences, but it includes experts from different fields. Egyptologists, symbolists, olfactory artists, and even playwrights work with Sean Coughlin’s team to understand ancient perfumes from as many different perspectives as possible.
In addition to the project, workshops are also organized where these ancient perfumes can be made in a certain way.
“We organize workshops where we do two things. First, people come with us and follow an old recipe and make perfume by following that recipe that they can take home with them. But we also encourage citizen science, and that benefits us and the audience. We have many materials and there are many different ways. To make the fragrance. We have people who will come into the workshop, and they will make the fragrance according to their interpretation of what they think the recipe says. They record it for us and then update us every two weeks, tell us about their perfume performance, send us pictures and inform us, and these are things we can include in our long-term studies.”
The Perfume Chemistry project is expected to run for five years, adding a Greek-Egyptian Dictionary of Perfume to the five fragrances they are trying to recreate. It is a historical dictionary that records people’s opinions about perfumes over time. They intend to collect all available information in one volume.
They will also have a book on perfume, documenting everything that was done during the project, as well as the research itself. In Coughlin’s specific case, he is working on a book on the art and nature of ancient Greece.
They hope to expand the project due to the great interest shown by people from all fields in cooperating in it.
For Coughlin, the most important thing is to teach the public that the history of science is something they can actually experience firsthand.
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