In prehistoric (neolithic) North Africa there lived, amongst many peoples, a tribe of nomadic goat-herders. Occasionally, these people noticed that their goats acquired a blackish, sticky substance on their fleeces and eventually they realised that if this substance were removed and burned, it provided a very fragrant smoke.
As a brief aside it is worth mentioning that the use of aromatic materials as incense is the origin of perfumery and of aromatherapy. The word perfume itself comes from the Latin words per fumum, meaning through smoke.
Having lived in North Africa, not far from the Nile delta, I can appreciate what kind of impact a pleasant smell had on the people who lived there at that time. Even living with the benefits of hot water and soap one starts to smell like a cheese one or two hours after a shower. In summer the coolest time of day is in the middle of the night. Even then, with all windows open and movement restricted as near as possible to nil, the perspiration pours off as if one were in a sauna.
The value of a fragrant substance was apparent to our nomads and they isolated the origin of the black sticky stuff. The goats ‘collected’ it as they grazed among the rock roses (labdanum). It can’t have been long before the goats were removed from the equation. The invention of the ladanesterion, a flail with leather thongs later named after the plant by the Greeks, may have been the first technology to be related to aromatics. With it the nomads could flail the plants, the resin sticking to the thongs. From these it could be more conveniently squeeged off than it could from goats’ fleeces. (They actually used sand to separate the labdanum from the ladanesterion, the sand being easily removed later).
Naturally enough, the labdanum resin so collected was much in demand and the nomads eventually gave up goat herding to become labdanum traders. They were so successful in this that they became the first dynasty of Egypt. If you examine pictures of pharoahs or of Osiris (the imagery is largely interchangeable) you will see that the arms are crossed over the chest, one hand bearing a crook (a legacy of the goat-herding days), the other hand bearing a flail (ladanesterion). The pharoah wears a false beard (even if female!) actually made from goat hair which was evidently stuck to the chin using labdanum.
The importance of aromatics in antiquity is thrown into sharp relief when it is realised that that the humble rock rose is responsible for the iconic imagery so well known to us five thousand years later even if we have largely forgotten that the roots of this imagery are in incense (per fumum).
The oleoresin is obtained from various species of cistus , principally Cistus Creticus Incanus, the best material being collected between May and July. It was Dioscorides who first mentioned the ladanesterion method of collection but the first written mention of labdanum as a modern medicine occurred in 1589 when it was listed in Dispensatorium Noricum. Its use as a medicine does seem to stretch back into antiquity though, because, although its principal uses were in incense and in the mummification process (along with the much better known frankincense and myrrh) there are ancient references to its use for liver and stomach problems as well as a remedy for breathing difficulties and for the loss of the hair.
The essential oil has a specific gravity of 0.925 and its boiling point can be as high as 280 deg., one of the reasons why it is an excellent fixative. Another reason is that, in the right proportion, it imparts an ambergris* note which is invaluable in some types of fine fragrances and lavender compounds.
*Ambergris is a pathological secretion of the sperm whale and was extensively used in former times as a fixer and toner for perfumes. While whaling is still carried out by Norwegian and Japanese barbarians it is very important for us not to use it. When whaling is a thing of the past, all ambergris appearing on the market will be ‘found’ and consequently usable.