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August 4, 2005

Cyprus — The Hermès of the Bronze Age


Among the ultra–luxe goods of 2000 B.C. were olive oil, wine, exquisite colored fabrics and copper artefacts.

The name Cyprus itself is derived from the ancient Greek word for copper, which was found in abundance near the surface there in ancient times, mined and exported throughout the region.

Towering above the aforementioned high–value creations of antiquity were the highly–sought perfumes made from laurel, cinnamon, myrtle and bergamot in the perfume factory at Pyrgos, Cyprus.

Recently unearthed by a team of Italian archaeologists, the remains of ceramic bottles revealed the presence of the essences of at least 14 different perfumes once created there.

Dr. Rosario Belgiorno, quoted in yesterday's Financial Times story by Tabitha Morgan, said, "These are the earliest examples of blended perfumes. The technique remained the same for a long time."

The perfumers of Cyprus developed their skills in conjunction with a busy trading link between their island and the ancient Egyptians, whose tombs reveal much about the industry via pictorial evidence.

Morgan wrote that the links with Egypt, "the most sophisticated culture in the prehistoric Mediterranean, probably facilitated an early transfer of know–how."

Ancient perfume production was an exacting and highly labor–intensive activity.

Flower, leaves or berries were boiled and the resulting essences distilled and mixed with a base of olive oil.

"Scented oils often commanded very high prices, and one gram of a valuable blended perfume, such as spikenard, was sometimes worth more than gold."

The clay pots, some as large as 500 liters, that were found in the factory ruins were regarded in antiquity as disposable packaging.

Pliny, the Roman historian, described Cyprus in his "Natural History" as the earliest source of some of the most popular perfumes of the ancient world.

Production at the Pyrgos factory ended abruptly in about 1850 B.C. when an earthquake destroyed it, simultaneously freezing it in time until its recent rediscovery.

Here's a link to an earlier BBC report by Morgan on the subject.

August 4, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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