Herbs for Health and Beauty: tips from 2000BC

Most of us probably tend to think of industrial-related illnesses such as heavy metal contamination as modern, post-industrialisation problems. But when we peer at exquisitely delicate Bronze Age Minoan jewelry, figurines or large axes and copper cauldrons in the museums, we are looking at potential health hazards for the craftswomen and men who made them. Metalwork was highly developed in Crete as early as 2000BC, and some intriguing evidence has come to light about the hazards faced by the makers and the medicines used to treat those affected. In Chrysokamino in NE Crete, where copper and other metals were smelted, a Bronze age slag heap was found. And it was on this slag heap that scientists found evidence not only of the metals with potential hazards that included arsenic, but of the remains of a herbal pharmacy!

Not since I was a child had I heard the term camphorated oil. In post-war England, I remember it being rubbed on our chests from those ribbed bottles for childhood colds. But camphorated oils were apparently used to treat the chest complaints of Minoan metalworkers as well. They were made by a distillation process from oily herbs such as laurel, sage, and lavendar. Scientist even distinguished different processes that produced essential oils of these plants, from camphor which is a degraded substance with different properties. Other medical plants identified included coriander (of which huge quantities later appeared in the cuneiform accounts at Knossos), cumin, dittany, rue, saffron, rosemary, safflower, anise, verbena, aleppo pine, myrtle and fig. Such a list would be perfectly at home, I'm sure, in any modern herbalist's!

Meanwhile at around the same time in Apodoulou in the Amari Valley, (in the area of the temple of Phaistos) similar techniques of distillation were being practised but for different purposes. Just as The Body Shop today sells essential oils for both aromatherapy and for perfumes, so the pleasure-loving Minoans developed the science and art of perfume making. It is clear from images of the gracefully adorned priestesses in their elaborate, revealing dresses, and the slim, elegant, young men serving them, that the temple culture of Crete honoured the beauty and pleasures of the body as sacred. No doubt this would have stimulated growth in the production of substances that enhanced such pleasures, such as perfume, body oils and cosmetics.

In Chamalevri in West Crete as well as Apodoulou, there has been found evidence of the production of aromatics by distillation since even before the great temple eras. Chamalevri was producing aromatics before 2000 BC - the earliest such production ever found. Here complex cosmetics were found, containing such ingredients as anise, carnations, beeswax, honey, olive oil of course, and resin. And one other ingredient apparently still among the most precious substances in the perfume industry today: oil of iris! The value placed on this substance over time is atttested to by the fact that 600 years later, at the end of the high Minoan era, jars with iris decoration were still produced at this site and found at other sites, possibly in association with funerary rites.

But how can we know that these exact substances were processed so long ago? Only the techniques of organic residue analysis developed in recent years* has revealed the subtle composition of ancient pharmacies. Minute fragments of organic materials are submitted to DNA analysis, in the same way as the contents of food and cooking processes were revealed, as I wrote about in my last article. In the case of perfumes and cosmetics, residue was analysed from the sharp blades of obsidian used for cutting the plants as well as from the vessels used for distillation and the containers. Before this, it could only be guessed that a decoration of iris flowers on a small stone box was a kind of label, but now we know it to be the case.

It seems that over time the domestic market for perfumes made in ancient Crete developed into an international one, and perfumes based on iris oil may even have become one of Crete's most valuable exports. In cuneiform accounts found at Knossos, it seems that aromatic oils were among the three most important products along with food and medicine. Could it be that this glorious civilisation that so celebrated the vitality of nature and the grace of the human body, that worshipped the divine in the power and beauty of women, was built on an economy based on the manufacture and export of the world's most expensive and desirable perfume? It's an intriguing and attractive theory! A trading empire built on art and perfume - beats WMD…

* I first came across this research in an exhibition in Rethymnon Museum called 'Minoans and Myceneans: Flavours of their Time' in 2000. I later saw an expanded exhibition in Birmingham, England, which led me to further exploration of the research.


Copyright Cora Greenhill
April 2005

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