Recreating The Aroma Of The Ancient City: Incense In The Ancient Mediterranean

Censer, clay. Gralygia, near Ierapetra Crete, Late Minoan III period, 1400-1200 BC. Archaeological Museum of Agios Nikolaos. Image via Wikimedia under a CC-BY-SA-4.0

What did the ancient Mediterranean smell like? How could scent be used to speak directly to the Gods? Where did the frankincense and myrrh given to the infant Jesus come from? These questions and many more were asked this weekend at a conference at the British School at Rome and the École française de Rome. Archaeologists, historians and classicists gathered not only to explore the use of incense, perfume and scented oils in antiquity, but also to attempt to recreate the ephemeral smellscapes of the past.
Limoges enamel plaque of angels with censers, formerly in the Keir Collection, now in the 

At times, the streets of the ancient world may have been rife with the smell of sewage, garbage and decaying animals; however, there were also sweet smells that could be acquired--for a price. The historical use of incense stretches back for millennia, although the substances burned could vary from place to place. Sweet smelling smoke was often the way that the people could speak to the Gods and demonstrate piety. Think of it as a kind of direct telephone line that could be used through an altar in the front of a temple, within a household shrine or via small incense burners.
During the period of the Aegean Bronze Age (ca.3000-1000 BCE), the ancient cultures of the Minoans and the Myceneans on the island of Crete made extensive use of fragrant substances such as ladanum (also called laudanum) and saffron. It is said that shepherds would often meticulously collect remnants of ladanum, a sticky resin that comes from the shrubs of the Cistus ladanifer, from the beards of their goats after they had been grazing. As Jo Day, a classics professor at University College Dublin, remarked, the Minoans and Myceneans (1600-1200 BCE) also burned another spice as incense: saffron. Numerous frescoes at other Minoan sites, such as...CONTINUE HERE

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