Experimental archaeology of fragrances and cosmetics
Welcome to the world of odors from the past!
My name is Katarzyna Gromek and I am an independent scholar who specializes in experimental archaeology of fragrances and cosmetics.
My goal is to recreate the fragrances and cosmetics in the same manner it was done hundreds and thousands years ago.
I share the results of my experimental work through in-person displays, presentations at conferences, and free online talks.
My main interests
Experimental archaeology of fragrances and cosmetics
History of trade in aromatics and medicinal substances
Cultural exchanges (recipes, books, methods, tools, artisans)
Research on historical fragrances and cosmetics is in part a consequence of my early interests. I find the herbal lore fascinating since my childhood adventures with Sigrid Undset's books.
There was little difference between fragrance/cosmetics and medication well into the early modern period, and pleasant odors were used both to treat diseases, and to satisfy and stimulate the desire for luxury products. Even beauty products were made appealing to customers by using scented bases or storing them with additional aromatics. Investigating how these products were made and used, and what was the general view on them by contemporaries, is both fascinating and perplexing.
l also like challenges, and most steps involved in experimental archaeology require more research then the proverbial check through Google Chrome. I have set up boundaries of what I could work on (Europe and Asia, including southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and the timeframe from Bronze Age to early 17th century) to make my project slightly more manageable. It not necessarily worked as I am always finding interesting side projects which distract me from the main work.
Since I am interested in recreating the actual odor of historical fragrances, I base my reconstructions on recipes preserved in primary texts (like Materia medica or cookbooks) or the results from analysis of extant samples, and I aim to use exclusively the methods mentioned in source texts.
I translate the extant texts where possible (Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Medieval Chinese, German), or at least try to find reliable sources for translations (Arabic, Classical Greek, Sanskrit). In ideal translation, the ingredient names should be transliterated to make identification easier. Then I cross-refence the ingredients with other primary and secondary sources. In case of analysis of extant samples, the identification of plant relies on database of reference samples. The authors use databases of references samples to identify species down to genus level. Narrowing down to one specific species may not be possible, and quite often I have a list of potential candidates. Once I deal with the ambiguity in modern translations and identification of plants and other ingredients, I can proceed to sourcing ingredients.
One of the biggest challenges to recreation of historical fragrances is the availability of ingredients. Some plants used in historical recipes are no longer available or their qualities have drastically changed (like ability to produce resin). Ingredients from the animal world can be illegal in some countries, prohibitively expensive, or ethically questionable. Ambergris' use is illegal in USA even though it is easily available from online stores. I substitute the real ambergris with a mix of synthetic replacement, Ambergris Essence (IFF), and Indian ambergris oil which contains three main chemical components of aged ambergris (ambrein, epicoprosterol, co-prosterol). Deer musk from farmed deer (harvested without killing the male deer) is available from some of the traditional Chinese medicine pharmacies, but it is extremely expensive. My favorite substitute is a mixture of ambrette seeds and tincture/macerate from muskrat.
Balsam of Gilead and styrax resin from Styrax officinalis are nearly impossible to obtain. I use instead substitutes which were recommended by contemporary authors.
Recreating the fragrances becomes an exercise in historical accuracy. Each substituted ingredient needs to be evaluated for potential change to the original quality and odor.
I acquire my ingredients from all regions of Europe and Asia, trying to match the recipe's origins and ingredients' source. This is one of the reasons to use Borneol camphor instead of regular camphor from Cinnamonum camphora.
Sometimes fragrances require compound ingredients (like rosewater, prepared opercula, prepared fat base, ramik, nidd or alipta muscata) and I have found methods of preparation for these semi-finished products in medical texts.
Similar to the experimental archaeology of food, the recreated fragrances and cosmetics are assessed using the olfactory approach. I observe the stability and maturation (aging) over time, as well as their longevity when applied to skin. Cosmetics which are not toxic or potentially toxic, are used by me for painting face and skin care. For cosmetics, there is the additional bonus of comparing the coverage and durability on skin or if they make skin look better after application. It was quite surprising to find out that historical makeup can survive a day spent in the humid and hot outdoors of summer-time Midwest. Taking off the makeup requires a lot of cleansing oil. A lot.
Since I love sharing my knowledge, the results of my work are transformed into classes. The times of the COVID-19 pandemics were not good for in-person events or displays, but I have actually benefited from the bloom of virtual events and conferences. I have had the opportunity to present, attend lectures, and meet new people across the world.
I am currently working on two manuscripts for publication in peer-reviewed journals. I should probably consider a more complete publication, like a handbook of practical perfumery. Depending how my modern life goes, the first to tackle would be the olfactory traditions of imperial China.
Historical perfumery online course
I offer a free online practical perfumery course.
Learn the basics of historical perfumery at your own pace, in the comfort of your own kitchen/still room/whatever place you prefer. The members of the group can decide on next fragrance through surveys.
We have currently 12 fragrances posted, each with step-by-step instructions. I cover not only the fragrance itself, but also details on preparation of compound ingredients needed to recreate it. The next scent to come is a medieval Tibetan incense.
The members of the group can decide on choice of next fragrance through surveys.
The course is organized on Facebook platform though I am considering other options for the future.
Link to the "Scents of antiquity - historical perfumery online course" https://www.facebook.com/groups/807436473052978