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Painting of Cleopatra testing poisons on condemned prisoners
Painting by Alexandre Cabanel

Two University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa professors have recreated Cleopatra’s ancient perfume, which will be showcased in a National Geographic exhibit. The UH Tell Timai Project is a decade-long excavation in the ancient Egyptian city Thmuis (Tell Timai) in the Nile Delta launched by College of Languages, Linguistics & Literature Professor Robert Littman and adjunct professor Jay Silverstein.

Uncovering kilns, rediscovering perfumes

archaeology site
Perfume factory at Tell Timai

Thmuis was the home to the most famous perfumes of antiquity, Mendesian and Metopian. In the first phase of the Tell Timai Project, evidence was uncovered of this ancient fragrance industry.

A vast complex of third century BCE (Before the Common Era) kilns was discovered. Chemical analysis established that the kilns used imported clays to manufacture fine lekythoi or perfume bottles. In a later Roman occupation, a glass manufacturing kiln was analyzed that may represent the transition from ceramic to the unguentaria or small glass perfume jars used in the Roman period.

In 2012, a manufacturing area for some sort of liquid was uncovered with an adjacent hoard of silver coins and gold and silver jewelry near the kilns suggesting that, possibly, the house of a perfume merchant had been uncovered.

Currently, residue analysis of the contents of some of the amphora, a tall ancient Greek or Roman jar with two handles and a narrow neck, found in the manufacturing area are being conducted to see if there may be identifiable traces of the liquids produced there.

Littman and Silverstein then approached German researchers Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin, experts on ancient Egyptian perfume, to recreate the perfume of Thmuis, based on formulas in ancient Greek texts.

They have reproduced both the myrrh (a natural gum or resin extracted from a number of small, thorny tree species)-based Mendesian and the Metopian perfumes.

Said Littman, “What a thrill it is to smell a perfume that no one has smelled for 2,000 years and one which Cleopatra might have worn.”

Jars of Cleopatra on exhibit
Jars of Cleopatra’s perfume on display in a National Geographic exhibit. (Photo credit: National Geographic)

Innovative exhibition

These studies of Mendesian perfume have now come together in Washington, D.C. The National Geographic Society opened a new and innovative exhibition on the “Queens of Egypt” that incorporates cutting edge research, virtual reality experience, and the fragrances of the Queens of Egypt.

The work of Littman and Silverstein and the fragrances of Goldsmith and Coughlin are featured in the National Geographic Museum exhibit in Washington, D.C., which runs through September 15.

Learn more about the UH Tell Timai Project

UH professor leading excavation in Egypt receives national archaeology award, November 24, 2017

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