Association for Environmental Archaeology awards Barbara Huber 2022 AEA Small Research Grant

Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History doctoral researcher Barbara Huber is one of seven members of the Association for Environmental Archaeology to win a 2022 AEA Small Research Grant. The grant will help to fund her project titled “Reconstructing olfactory landscapes of ancient Arabia using biomolecular approaches.”

June 09, 2022

About the Project

Peoples of the past interacted with their environment in complex ways. An often overlooked aspect of environmental archaeology is human engagement with past olfactory landscapes, and the plants that produced distinct scents. Huber’s project will investigate the use and trade of aromatic botanical products in ancient Arabia, focusing on the social and ecological implications of an ancient scent industry in the first millennium BCE.

Scent has a strong impact on how humans perceive and navigate their world, shaping identity and cultural preference. Despite the importance of this sense, the past remains largely odourless. Huber will explore the world of ancient scents by applying biomolecular analyses to organic residues recovered from archaeological artefacts associated with the use of aromatic substances, such as incense burners, perfume flasks, alters, and unguent containers. The analyses of lipids, proteins, and secondary metabolites from these plant residues with gas- and liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (GC-MS, LC-MS/MS) enable the identification of scented plant products and the reconstruction of past smell environments, or “smellscapes.”

The dispersal and trade of aromatics along the ancient Incense Road, which connected the Mediterranean with south Arabia, can be traced by analysing samples of residues from different archaeological sites. Pinpointing the places of origin for individual aromatics and their presence at different urban hubs of trade is important for reconstructing ancient economic and social systems.

“I am excited to continue my ongoing research into the use and consumption of aromatic plants in different parts of the ancient world and the assessment of their potential implications for global exchange,” says Huber.

Learn more about Huber’s research into the smellscapes of the past here.

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