Thursday, May 29, 2008

Crossing Oceans of Time to Bottle Antiquity

Perfumes are ephemeral beings. Open the bottle stopper and they evaporate, soon lost to time. Lost even faster than the stone visage of Ozymandias. But they can be trapped in time by disasters such as shipwrecks, volcanic explosions or earthquakes and re-discovered intact.

Judging by the salvaged tiles which had miraculously been "baked" and thus sufficiently hardened in the great fires of Crete to keep their inscriptions, as well as the pottery which had been buried under volcanic earth for the benefit of our discovery in Akrotiri, Santorini in Greece and in Pompeii, Italy, I can personally attest to the above statement. It is amazing to contemplate how things which you thought forever lost have a way of being respected by that great reaper, Time, and how everything on this beautiful earth leaves a perceptible trace for the sensitive souls of tomorrow to follow like a detective.

David Pybus, also known as the Indiana Jones of the perfume industry (and additionally the "Perfume Hunter", Hunter being his middle Christian name) has been associated with the British Museum as the reconstructor of ancient perfumes for the benefit of his contemporaries. He has spent a large part of his life searching for, collecting and re-creating perfumes from antiquity. Fragrances of frankincense, myrrh, resins and spikenard, which have stood the test of time proving to be fit even for our fickle, modern days. Fragrances in that vein prove popular, like the Comme de Garcons Incense series, the recent trio of L'orientalistes by Annick Goutal (Ambre Fétiche, Myrrhe Ardente and Encens Flamboyant), La Myrrhe by Lutens, Frankincense Myrrh Rose Maroc by Regina Harris and countless others.

In the above clip he talks about the wondrous things that came from ancient Egypt in relation to perfumes: the origin of perfumes via incense offering to the Gods (per fumum which in Latin means "through smoke"), the regal use of aromatics and the ensuing tomb raiding in pursuit of...perfumes, the hallucinogenic properties of the sacred blue lotus (steeped in wine to be drunk), the catching of its headspace* for the purposes of recreating its odour profile and the amazing adventure that it has been trying to trace the origins of perfumery.

His own site, named Scents of Time can be accessed here: Scents of Time
David worked with perfumers from Givaudan to be able to reconstruct the fragrances which echo antiquity. The recreated perfume Ankh, named after the Egyptian talisman of eternal life and the perfume of Pharaoh Tutankhamen himself, is a masterful recreation of the best of Egyptian perfumery. Derived from the famed Kyphi incense formula (which we referenced in this article) found at Edfu on the Nile, this fragrance was reputedly burnt three times during the day: to greet the sun on its return, to give thanks to the giver of life at noon and to pray for a swift return at eventide.

Other recreated compositions include: Nenúfar , based on the scent of blue lotus (and perhaps echoing the Homeric tale of the Lotus Eaters who abandonded themselves to Lythe), a recreation of Cleopatra's fragrance; and Pyxis, inspired by floral, herbal and spice spores found in the garden of a perfumer, believed to be called Sperato, at Pompeii, combined with ingredients available at the four corners of the Roman Empire. Petra is the latest, inspired by the Elixir of Life, the Philosopher's Stone (hence the hellenic name which means stone), being worked at right now. You can find out about Pybus's scents by contacting him at

But David Pybus has also been the first to amass a great amount of poetry and literature in general that is associated with fragrances and aromatic materials. His book Transports of Delight is a compendium of fragrant verse and aromatic stanzas that explore the widths and breadths of the earth from ancient civilizations right up to our days, with poetry by David himself. An immensely enjoyable book, which I highly recommend. His other books are equally interesting, such as Kodo, the way of Incense and Chemistry of Fragrances in collaboration with many other authors.

*headspace technology is a technique to elucidate the odour compounds present in the air surrounding various objects and then analyzing it and recreating it in the lab
Clip via brought to my attention by Colonia on POL.

Pic of faience perfume vase in the shape of a lotus bud, 13cm height, from Sesedi,Sudan hailing from the 18th dynasty (1300BC), courtesy of the British Museum. {Sesebi in Nubia was founded in the time of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV, 1352-1336 BC), was home to an Egyptian colony during the New Kingdom expansion to the South. Occupation coincides with Akhenaten's reign, during which a religious revolution was attempted when Akhentaten tried to impose monotheism of Sun God. He failed}


  1. Andy10:49

    Thank you for this interesting link(s)! Bottomline: Nothing new under the sun , ... well, almost. The ancient perfume lovers could not dream of getting incense and chewing gum combined. ;-)

  2. WOW, Helg! Thank you for this very interesting article and the stunning links! Give us more of this! I am absolutely curious how the ancient perfumes might have smelled. The original "chyprés", so to say, in the mediterranean, the original "orientals" in the middle east and far east of course. I recently read about the Japanese Kodo ritual/ceremony, a highly intersting mix of a ceremony, a scent-quiz-game and a form of art. Oh i wish i could travel to these times, only for one day...

  3. Glad you enjoyed it, A!

    Perfect example, LOL!: clementine droplets bursting, smoked through frankincense rings in the skies! Strangely compelling :-))

  4. Dear N,

    I am very happy you liked the article. Those subjects are very dear to my heart and it was a joy sharing the work of someone whom I have been following for quite some time now.

    Isn't Kodo very interesting? The Japanese have elevated such things into high art forms.

    Getting back to antiquity is a fascinating albeit perilous prospect: it all depends in which part of the food chain one reverts to.... ;-)

  5. Abigail16:42

    What an amazing article!! Thanks!
    I would love to get to know Egyptian perfumes, of course, and Cleopatra's personal fragrance. Is David Pybus actually selling those scents?

  6. Thanks A!
    Well, I don't know about Cleopatra's personal fragrance: I think it was more than one ;-)

    Byt yes, David has issued them on the market and you can mail him to ask particulars.

  7. This is a really terrific article, Helg! I'm completely enthralled now, and will be getting his books :)

  8. Thank you so much for your compliment Risa.
    Hope you enjoy, very interesting to read, I assure you.

  9. This was spectacular.

    I so appreciate all your research and information !
    [I've been reading, but not blogging much- not been well at all, lately-
    But I love you still...]

  10. Thank you I for your (always) kind words and spreading your sunny disposition.

    Your news concern me though. Hope you feel better soon ((((hugs)))

  11. Must check out those books! I don't dare begin lusting after the perfumes, but the blue lotus scent does intrigue me, of course. Thanks for the introduction to Mr. Pybus.

  12. You're welcome dear M :-)

    I have to say the perfumes are very tempting. Very temtping indeed.


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