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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Scents of Time: An Interview with David Pybus. Part II. Historical and Ancient Incense

By Marla

I continue my interview with chemist/archaeologist/perfumer David Pybus, of Scents of Time, with some questions about incense:

Marla: How is the recreation process different for incense and perfume?

David: Burning incense like frankincense (olibanum) for instance, you get over two hundred pyrolysis compounds- 60-plus of which are sesquiterpinoids. It’s highly complex chemistry – and the smokiness adds to the whole appeal…but it’s also all natural. Ask me the difference between natural and synthetic and I would say that there is something about a natural product. A kind of life force that cannot be seen or weighed…but that is what makes the difference and what can make the inhalation of incense smoke energizing or relaxing (depending on the mix). To me good incense is a mind-altering drug that just happens to be legal.

Marla: What’s your favorite type of incense and why?

David: I use a few different Kohs from Baiedo, ( my favourite being Kunshoko. As for why…the aroma is just so appealing to me and brings memories of my stay in Japan to learn the business.

Marla: How would you recommend someone go about learning to make incense.

David: Go to the masters- Japan/China…my particular recommendations would be Baiedo and Shoyeido. Forget the witchcraft websites! There are plenty of books (including mine). Just type “Kodo” or incense into Google/Amazon.

Marla: How does one make sense of the many different (and sometimes contradictory) sources for famous types of incense, such as ancient Egyptian kyphi? Is it possible to find out how it really smelled?

David: Again, go to the source. There seems to be a consensus in Egypt about the kyphi formula (forget the witchcraft sites again). Follow that precisely if you have the inkling and re-create your own. But remember, there may be carcinogens/toxins in higher than normal recommended levels in that mix and you are really experimenting with dangers. Especially burning the compound and inhaling the smoke. If in any doubt about any ingredient, leave it out.

Marla: Any anecdotes you’d like to share on discovering ancient incense, on the archaeological aspects?

David: Incense was mixed and ground in earthenware jars and stored in alabaster and the like. At archaeological sites (especially those preserved by disaster) look for strange ground discolourations around known mixing areas, scoop some up and burn it…is there an aroma reminiscent of powdered incense as opposed to burning dirt…if you think you’ve got something, put it through GLC/MS and see what its constituents are.

As far as formulae are concerned, search genuine old books on perfumery and grimoires on alchemy and the like.

As the rulers (pharaohs, emperors and the like) were God’s representatives on the planet and liked to smell like him, find a tomb, and you’ll find some incense. Whilst we say you can’t take it with you to the grave and afterlife, they of course did!

Finally if you go off on a far flung expedition, make sure you take things with you to either make you go to the loo or stop you going to the loo!

Image source, Scents of Time.

Note from David Pybus:

"I have decided it is easier and less complex webwise to bring the prices down in response to economic situation (...) and so from end of this week as a special spring seasonal offer the following will apply:
Ankh 100ml EDT from £55 to £40 (27% discount)
Nenufar and Pyxis 100ml EDPs from £60 to £45 (25% discount)
Nenufar. Maya and Pyxis 50 ml from £45 to £35 (22% discount)
Double packs of 2 x 50 ml mixes of Nenufar/Pyxis, Pyxis/Maya and Maya /Nenufar from £65 to £55 (15%)
No coding will be necessary to make the purchases."

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Blogger Flora said...

Marla, how fascinating this man's work is! Thank you for this piece, it's a real treat. And I love his final piece of advice! :-D

12:55 AM EDT  
Blogger Unknown said...

great post!

12:47 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you!

2:17 PM EDT  
Blogger elle said...

Absolutely fascinating! Once again, I do wish I had chosen archaeology as a career. And I think I will leave making incense to the masters. Have this suspicion I'd end up in the emergency room - or worse - from toxic fumes if I tried to make my own.
Very nice that he brought down the prices on those scents!

4:35 PM EDT  
Anonymous surely-shirley said...

Bunch of thanks! A great interview!

4:37 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, making basic, loose incense is not too hard if you stick to a few resins and recipes, and it's fun to learn about the different materials. I've also tried making sticks and cones- they've smelled good, but have not burned as evenly as I'd have liked. A great incense-only blog is Olfactory Rescue Service.

2:44 AM EDT  

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