Friday, March 7, 2008

Smelly Facts: Scented History

In their paper “Chirality and Odor Perception – Scents of Precious Woods”, authors Leffingwell and John C. review the effect of chirality on the odor of “sandalwood odorants (beta-santalols, 3-isocamphylicyclohexanols & Ebanol((R))s), patchouli odorants (patchoulol & spiropatchoulolone), agarwood (karanone dihydrokaranone & jinkohol II) as well as the odor active components of other woody fragrance materials (Iso E Super((R)), Georgywood((R)), etc.” and provide an overview of “the progress made in key chiral odorants that represent the scents of precious woods”

The article’s abstract, which I am including below, is a most interesting read in its own right and hopefully serves as impetus for seeking out the full text.

“From the beginning of recorded history, trading of fragrant oils, spices and precious woods were important items of early commerce. By 3000 BC the Egyptians - when learning to write and make bricks, were already importing large quantities of myrrh. In November 1922 when the archeologist, Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamon, a world of knowledge about an age 3000 years before would unfold. As the painstaking discovery and cataloguing of artifacts proceeded, of the items found were perfume containers filled with spices & aromatic substances (such as frankincense) preserved in fat that still gave off a faint odor. From Japan, China, India to the Middle East, the use of precious woods such as sandalwood, agarwood, patchouli and cedarwood, as well as frankincense and myrrh, have been used from antiquity for religious ceremonies and for pleasure. Aromatic woods and plants were burned during funeral ceremonies, providing a connection between this world and the after-life. The word perfume derives from the Latin '' per fumum '' (by means of smoke) and refers to the ancient practice of burning aromatic woods and scented material in religious ceremonies to deepen the connection between people and their Gods. It should also be mentioned that burning aromatic woods and resins was also necessary to cover the stench after animals (or even humans - as practiced in India) were sacrificed in the flames so as not to drive away all participants of these religious rituals (1).
Today, in the Middle East, the aroma of sandalwood and patchouli still permeates coffee shops and bazaars as a mixture of these aromatics are used in the tobacco paste called '' Jurak '' smoked by men (and only rarely by women) in a water-pipe (or Shisho, Narghile or Hookha).
The use of aromatics derived from such Woods (or in the case of patchouli, the sweet, heavy woody scent derived from the leaves of the herbaceous shrub, Pogostemon cablin (Blanco) Benth.), remains popular in modem perfumes.”

Image: The making of Lily perfume, fragment of tomb decoration, 4th Century BC. Department of Egyptian Antiquities, Louvre. Source:
Reference: “Chirality and odor perception - Scents of precious woods”, Chimica oggi [0392-839X] Leffingwell yr:2006 vol:24 iss:4 pg:36 -38


PinstripedZebra said...

Wow, that is amazing! I was under the impression that if you would be able to travel back in time it would progressively smell worse..:)

The 1800's, lot's of smoke, industrial smells. The Middle ages and earlier, well, body odors, stink, rot, etc. Always nice to learn that even at 3000 BC we were already developing ways to smell nice and make our surroundings smell nice!

You learn something new every day!


Unknown said...

Well it shouldn't be forgotten though that in the middle ages they loved spices so much that they over used. It's fascinating how much spices they would use in one dish; It was very much the time of the beginning of culinary heritage in Europe. Spices were very much the sign of wealth. Just bought some lovely Japanese osmanthus incense this week; sometimes you forget how lovely good quality incense can be.

chayaruchama said...

I'm SUCH a geek.
These informative posts thrill me to the marrow.
More, more !

Divina said...

Z, I love your imaginary scent travels :) I often wonder too! And yes, people DID used to smell nice.. The Greeks, the Romans they used to bathe all the time and they had irrigations systems, seperate for drinking water and seperate for dirty water. What the heck happened and suddenly all this was forgotten in the middle ages? Suddenly the streets were swimming in excremet and noone bathed....

Another interesting little piece of info: The greeks bathed with very harsh soaps, so to make their skin soft afterwards, they would massage oil all over their body. Those oils were fragranced.

I was a little peeved to be honest that this article didn't mention the greeks more. There are many examples of Linear B writing found in Greece, which when finally deciphered revealed that they were cataloguing various trade goods, among which perfumes.

Divina said...

Jen I had no idea about the overuse of spices in cuisine during the middle ages. Could this have had anything to do with preserving?

Divina said...

My dearest Chaya, I love them too! I especially love it when I find perfume references in my psychology books!