Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Pharaoh-mones Volume 59 Number 5, September/October 2006
by Kristin Romey

With open sewers, sweaty slaves, limited indoor plumbing, and dark, crowded abodes, life in the ancient world stank. The Egyptians tamed their malodorous surroundings by liberally dousing their rooms and themselves with an assortment of scented concoctions which, thanks to Egyptologists, we're able to decipher today. Cosmetics queen Marilyn Miglin seized that opportunity in the late 1970s, hiring a specialist to translate hieroglyphic texts on scent that led her to create "Pheromone." Launched to coincide with the blockbuster Tut show, the scent, comprised of 179 "rare and costly essences" from all over the world, was marketed as "the world's most precious perfume."


To celebrate the return of Tut, Miglin has released a special-edition set of the single-scent notes that comprise the heart of "Pheromone." "The Seven Sacred Oils" ($125, available at the Field Museum) makes the claim of being "documented on papyrus," with all the notes "revered for their behavioral effects." The question is whether it's advisable in the modern world to smell like an ancient Egyptian. Spikenard ("to stimulate psychic powers") was indeed a very popular and precious scent 4,000 years ago--Tut even had some left over in his tomb--but its medicinal punch suggests something to rub into a sore shoulder. The popular ancient duo of olibanum (frankincense: "for a heightened sense of smell") and myrrh ("a cherished blood stimulant") will leave you smelling as if you just stepped out of a confessional. Juniper ("to calm, cool, and cleanse") is perfectly harmless, but Lotus ("for the sweetness of woman") is suffocating in its flowery sugariness. In a sniff to authenticity, the two most pleasant scents in the set have their origins in plants that, in real life, smell like absolutely nothing: Palm ("the revitalizing oil of life") is clean and grassy, while the jasmine-like Fo-Ti-Tieng ("a sexual stimulant"), a Chinese herb, was unfortunately never even enjoyed by the pharaohs.

Kristin Romey is executive editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America