Cleopatra was legendary in her use of perfume. It was said that you could smell her before you could see her. But what was in her perfume, and what did it really smell like? Archaeologist Robert Littman and his team wanted to find out.
Littman and his colleague Jay Silverstein came up with the idea during their ongoing excavation of the ancient Egyptian city Thmuis, located north of Cairo in the Nile Delta and founded around 4500 BC. The region was home to two of the most famous perfumes in the ancient world: Mendesian and Metopian. So when the researchers uncovered what seemed to be an ancient fragrance factory—a 300 BC site riddled with tiny glass perfume jars and imported clay amphoras—they knew they had to try to recover any scent that had survived.
The amphoras did not contain any noticeable smell—but they did contain an ancient sludge. After conducting a residue analysis, Littman took it to two experts on ancient Egyptian perfumes, Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin, who tried to replicate the Thmuis scent using formulas found in ancient Greek materia medica texts.
While they did come up with a plausible recipe, no one knows if it resembles Cleopatra's perfume. However, their new but very old perfume may have been quite a familiar scent in ancient Egypt, where so many people perfumed themselves daily. Read about the project to recreate ancient perfume at Atlas Obscura.