Perfumes and Spices in Ancient Rituals

Lesson Objectives: In this unit, students will learn about perfume in the ancient world in archaeological and written records. They will discuss the different uses of perfume, the role it played in ritual and society, and the residue that it leaves behind for modern researchers to sample and analyze. During this unit’s hands-on project, students will learn about common scents by mixing their own perfume.

Guiding Thematic Questions:

  • What role did trade play in the ancient world?
  • What defines a luxury good and how does it impart status upon the owner?
  • How were perfumes and scents used in ritual contexts?

Historical Context:

  • Perfume was a major element of Ancient Egyptian culture. Egyptians distilled natural ingredients such as flowers, fruits, and woods with neutral oils to create liquid perfumes. They also used incense for ritual purposes. Cleopatra and Hatshepsut were even buried with perfumes.
  • Ancient perfume bottles such as the ones seen in the images below had narrow necks to minimize evaporation and limit spills
  • Around the 11th century A.D. crusaders from Europe began to bring fragrance making materials and techniques from the far and middle east back to Europe. Extensive trade routes through the Mediterranean and connecting waters allowed for export and import. Exchange of precious goods such as perfumes and spices occurred along these international highways.

Fun Facts:

  • You can tell that a vessel was designed to hold perfume because of its material (glass, stone, and ceramic), decorations, and its thin neck. Scents are volatile compounds which mean that they can evaporate and go bad quickly. The thin neck helps prevent that from happening and limits spills. Glass is nonporous which also helps to preserve its contents.
  • Scientists can determine the chemical composition of the residue found in unguentaria via a process called gas chromatography- mass spectrometry which separates and determines the exact chemical signatures of the aromas held inside the vessel.

Object Images:

Double Unguentarium
Circa 3rd-4th c. CE
4.5″ tall
Carlos Museum, Emory University

Perfume Flask
Jerusalem (Roman Period)
Circa 1st c. CE
4″ tall
Carlos Museum, Emory University

Jug with Applied Handle
Jerusalem (Roman Period)
Circa 1st c. AD
5” tall
Carlos Museum, Emory University

Classroom Discussion Questions:

What is an unguentarium?

Why were perfumes and incense so important in the ancient world?

When are incense and fragrances mentioned in the Torah?

List a few popular scents used in ancient fragrances

What aromatic chemical compounds were found in these glass vessels from the Carlos Museum?

Project: Perfume Making


  • Glass vials with screw tops (1-3 drams, 4-10ml)
  • Oil Base (almond, grapeseed, or other light clear oil work well)
  • Essential Oils– several scents (rosemary, cinnamon, frankincense, lemon, lavender, etc.)
  • Small droppers (0.2 –0.5ml plastic pipettes)
  • Cord or yarn
  • Tiny rubber bands (optional)
  • Plates, cups, wipes (useful to contain spills)


  1. Each participant receives a vial and lid
  2. Use dropper to transfer oil base to vials, filling about 1/2 to 2/3.
  3. Add 2-6 drops of essential oil to partially filled vial. Select 1-3 different scents.
  4. Screw on cap tightly.
  5. Loop rubber band below cap.
  6. Tie-on cord or yarn, passing through loop of rubber band if present.