Ninth-century Chinese incense smelled of resin and lemon

In the Chinese Famen Temple is not only a finger bone of Buddha, but also old incense. Thanks to a chemical analysis, researchers discovered which smells were smelled there between the seventh and ninth centuries.

During the Tang dynasty (from 618 to 907), people smoked incense made from at least three ingredients within the walls of an underground palace in China: the woods and resins elemi, agarwood and olibanum. This is apparent from a chemical analysis of incense from the Chinese Famen Temple near the town of Famen, in the middle of China, a palace where a sacred finger bone of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is also kept.

The earliest known use of this fragrance combination is in China during the Tang Dynasty. The researchers used various chemical analysis techniques to determine the composition of the incense, and did the same with contemporary incense components. After comparing this, they arrived at three different incense ingredients: the wood and resin types elemi, agarwood and olibanum. Hard evidence of past use of these fragrances is rare, as they degrade easily.

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Fragrant Wood and Resin
Agarwood is a dark resinous wood that trees from Southeast Asia form when infected with a particular fungus. It smells woody and bittersweet. Elemi is a collective name for various fragrant resins of the plant family Burseraceae, also the supplier of the fragrance myrrh. The researchers describe a lemon and pine-like scent; perfume makers rather speak of an intense peppery scent. Olibanum smells very resinous and lemony, and comes from the tree genus Boswelliaalso called the frankincense tree.

Trade network

“You rarely get the chance to study such ancient incense, so we knew it would yield exciting results,” Yimin Yang, a professor of molecular archeology at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in an email. “Fortunately, I was able to identify the incense. These incense types are rarely found in pre-tenth century China. It has been described in ancient literature, but we show that it was actually used during the time of Buddhism in ancient China.’

It appears that the frankincense was imported to China via the Silk Road, an ancient trade route that linked Southeast Asia with Europe and the Middle East. Cultures exchanged not only spices, silks and gems, but also religion, art, languages ​​and technology. For example, the study offers more insight into the exchange of religious relics such as frankincense through the trade network.

Experience of historical scents

In addition, in history research it is important to reconstruct complete experiences – including smell and the surrounding context, says Caro Verbeek. She is an art and fragrance historian at the Free University in Amsterdam and the Kunstmuseum The Hague. ‘Why do we always describe history with such a limited context, with at most an image? Text, image and smell all lead to a better understanding of history. Moreover, with odor research you make history more accessible, for the sighted but also blind and partially sighted people.’

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