You may not think about it too much when you're dabbing on your favorite fragrance but scent has played an important role in societies for thousands of years. Used to stimulate memories, seduce, and bewitch, the farther back you go, the use of scent becomes more complex and tied to more than just simply smelling sweetly.
Limestone relief fragment of a perfume press – ca. 2051–2030 B.C. Egypt, Tomb of Neferu
The ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians were making fragrance as far back as 3000 BC, using aromatic resins and incense in most of their oil based fragrances. The very first chemist on record was in fact a Mesopotamian woman named Tapputi-Belatikallim. A cuneiform tablet from the second millenium B.C. describes Tapputi's process as a perfume maker and is the first documentation of the process of distillation. Tapputi held a position of great importance in the Mesopotamian court, Belatikallim a title meaning roughly "female palace overseer", and created fragrant waters, tinctures, scent extractions, and cold enfleurage for the royal family and the religious ceremonies carried out at court.
Left: Egyptian perfume vessel in shape of a monkey, 1550–1295 B.C. Right: Egyptian Perfume bottle in the shape of a hes-vase inlaid with the figure of a princess, 1353–1336 B.C. Travertine (Egyptian alabaster), carnelian, obsidian,gold, and colored glass inlay
At this time, perfume would have communicated a person's station in society more than their desire to beguile - the poor wore no fragrance at all and the precious ingredients used to make the nobilities perfume would have been an olfactory "reveal" about the wearer's class and affluence. Perfume was also a major driver of international trade relations as Egyptians imported many of their ingredients, such as aromatic woods, incense and myrrh, from Punt, a region in Africa, and other ingredients from Arabia, the Middle East, and India.
Left: Bronze incense burner, Southwestern Arabia – ca. mid-1st millennium B.C. Right: Greek thymiaterion – 2nd half of 4th century B.C.
Other ancient societies saw fragrance as less of a societal divider and more of a powerful purifier. Though the ancient Chinese did wear some fragrance, they mostly burned scented incense to purify sacred spaces, honor their ancestors through ritual, and to treat certain ailments using an early form of aromatherapy.
Roman fresco of a girl pouring perfume into a small vase, from the Villa Farnesina in Rome, 1st century
Heavily influenced by the Egyptians, wealthy Greek and Roman royalty and clergy also used scent to denote class but the use of perfumes for personal enjoyment became more widespread. The Greeks too were believers in the power of scent to heal and used fragrance to improve health, stamina, and mood. Hippocrates even falsely believed that a "miasma" of bad and foul air was responsible for sickness and plague and used aromatic fumigations in an effort to keep affliction at bay.
Greek glass alabastra, late 6th–5th century B.C.
Thousands of years later, a natural and inspired fragrance is still a revered treasure. Drawing upon the craft of our early ancestors, today's scents are created to trigger nostalgia, clear heads, open minds, relax the body and improve mood. Find your next go-to in our natural apothecary, including the captivating collection of scents from Richmond's Na Nin – artisanal perfume oils and candles in unusual scents like Cannabis Opium Den and their heady blend of palo santo, sandalwood and musk, Mujer Fuerte.
Top image: The making of lily perfume, fragment from the decoration of an Egyptian tomb – 4th century B.C.