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What Did the Ancient World Smell Like?

Friday, 04. May 2018

Press release no. 74/2018

Organic residues identified on fragments from the 2nd millennium BC

Incense burner from the Tayma oasis antique temple site, Saudi Arabia

As part of an interdisciplinary project with the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), scholars from TU Berlin's Institute of Ecology within Faculty VI (Planning Building Environment) have succeeded, for the first time, in reconstructing smells from antiquity. With the aid of burn marks on shards of antique incense burners from the second millennium BC, T. Lam Huong Pham, Ina Säumel and Jan Christopher of the Institute of Ecology have been able to determine exactly which resins were used.  

"The project came into being rather by chance when Barbara Huber, Dr. Arnulf Hausleiter and Michelle Dinies of the German Archaeological Institute told us about the excavation project at the oasis of Tayma  in north-west Saudi Arabia, where the antique areas of the oasis city of Tayma are being excavated in a long term cooperation between the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities and the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute", explains Dr Ina Säumel, leader of the "multi-functional landscapes" junior research group at the Institute of Ecology.

Excavation site in Tayma, Saudi Arabia

Among the finds were numerous shards from incense burners with burn marks. At that time in history, incense burners were not only used in temples but also in domestic environments and grave sites, partly for reasons of religion and partly for pharmacological reasons. The archaeologists were interested in establishing in which buildings serving which particular functions resins were burned.

"That's where we came in with our expertise in trace analysis", Ina Säumel explains. "We took shards or small samples of the incense burner shards and dissolved the burn marks using a special solvent. These samples contain residues of the burnt substances, which can be identified by means of a special chromatography and mass spectrometry", she adds.

Using these methods, different substances are separated from a mixture on the basis of their different properties and masses. To begin with a method was developed at the Institute of Ecology for the 'profiling' of what are known as secondary metabolites – materials which are generated when substances are burnt. This method makes it possible to identify the original plant matter. The remains of more than 60 incense burners together with over two hundred different reference materials from botanic collections were examined.

Incense burner from the Tayma oasis antique temple site, Saudi Arabia

"We can unequivocally verify that in Tayma resins from pistachio, incense and myrrh trees were burnt", Dr Säumel confirms. Of particular interest here: The different aromas were evidently used in different functional contexts. Thus pistachio resin was primarily burned in temples, while incense was used in a domestic context and myrrh for grave sites. "For us as ecologists it is interesting to know which resins from local timbers were used and which were brought to the region via trading networks. In this context a comparison with palaeobotanic studies in the region plays a significant role in the reconstructing of historical landscapes and their multi-functionality", Dr. Säumel explains.

Dr. Thi Lam Huong Pham, head of the Laboratory for Organic Trace Analysis and Natural Products at the Institute of Ecology takes up the story: "We are in the middle of conducting our analyses and have indicators of unidentified substances. For the first time we are comparing sample material recovered from excavations with regional reference material." The methodology used for this is still in its developmental phase and is currently being further developed as part of a study project at TU Berlin. "We want to expand our analysis considerably to enable us to establish, for example, whether the resins used (in Tayma) came from India or Chad", says Ina Säumel, sketching out a new interdisciplinary project to be conducted with archaeologists.

Details of the project:


Further information can be obtained from:

Dr. Ina Säumel
Institute of Ecology
Technische Universität Berlin
Tel.: 030 314 71373

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