2 Mu Scientists on the Scent of Antiquity Tiny Greek Vases Reveal Perfumes Weren't like Ours

By William Allen Post-Dispatch Science | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

2 Mu Scientists on the Scent of Antiquity Tiny Greek Vases Reveal Perfumes Weren't like Ours


William Allen Post-Dispatch Science, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


In a classic case of cooperation in science, a biochemist and an archaeologist from the University of Missouri at Columbia have discovered some of the ingredients in ancient Greek perfume.

What they found did not smell pretty.

"Our evidence all points to pungent odors - not sweet, floral odors," said Klaus Gerhardt, a professor of biochemistry.

Gerhardt worked with classical archaeologist William Biers to analyze residues trapped in the inside walls of two dozen vases used around the Mediterranean 3,000 years ago. Their high-tech method looked into the past without damaging the small ceramic vases.

Biers and Gerhardt presented their findings last week at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Atlanta. Also helping in the project was Rebecca Braniff, a former Mizzou graduate student who now works at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.

The scientists' aim was to uncover clues about the perfumes and the vases. That, in turn, could shed light on ancient civilization.

"One of the big questions in the field of classical archaeology is whether the vases were shipped around for themselves or for their contents," Bier said. "If we could determine that the different shapes of the vases represented different contents, we might be able to distinguish among them as coming from different places."

The research was supported by the university, National Science Foundation and private agencies, including the Fragrance Foundation of New York.

The vases - known as Corinthian figure vases - were made of clay formed into the shape of animals or human heads. Artists added tails, legs and other accouterments. They decorated the tan or white figures with black glaze paint.

The vases are small and can easily fit into the palm of a hand. Archaeologists found them in graves, sanctuaries and sometimes in homes. Over the years, many have made their way into art museums around the world.

The Mizzou researchers borrowed some from the university's collection in Columbia. They got others from art museums nationwide, including those at Yale and Harvard universities and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif. …

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