A Pharaoh’s wet nurse was mummified in balm scented with beeswax, plant oils and imported palm resin, reveals new research.
The rich nature of the ingredients reflects the Ancient Egyptian noblewoman’s status as a “highly valued” member of the Pharaoh’s entourage, say scientists.
They used state-of-the-art technology to identify the ingredients of balms used in the mummification of the woman called Senetnay whose remains were excavated by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1900.
The research also recreated one of the scents used in the mummification process 3,500 years ago.
Previous studies have shown that Senetnay, who lived in Egypt around 1,450 BC, was wet nurse to the Pharaoh Amenhotep II during his infancy, and bore the title “Ornament of the King”.
After her death, her mummified organs were stored in four jars in a royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Germany analysed the substances found within six balm samples from two jars that were used to store Senetnay’s lungs and liver.
They found that both balms contained beeswax, plant oils, animal fats, the naturally occurring petroleum product bitumen, and resins from the family of coniferous trees that includes pines and larches.
The team, whose findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports, also identified the presence of the compounds coumarin and benzoic acid within samples from both jars.
Coumarin has a vanilla-like scent and is found in several plants including cinnamons and pea plants, while benzoic acid occurs in fragrant resins and gums obtained from numerous trees and shrubs.
While the composition of the balms from both jars appeared similar, the researchers identified two substances that were only in the jar used to store Senetnay’s lungs: a compound called larixol, which is found in larch resin, and another fragrant resin that they suggest is either dammar, obtained from dipterocarp trees that grow in India and southeast Asia, or a resin obtained from Pistacia trees, part of the cashew family.
The researchers say that the presence of those ingredients in only one of the two jars could indicate that different balms were used to preserve different organs.
Project senior researcher Professor Nicole Boivin said: “The ingredients in the balm make it clear that the ancient Egyptians were sourcing materials from beyond their realm from an early date.
“The number of imported ingredients in her balm also highlights Senetnay’s importance as a key member of the pharaoh’s inner circle.”
Based on a review of previous analyses of mummification balms, the researchers say that the composition of those applied to Senetnay’s organs was “relatively complex” compared to others from the same period.
They also suggest that most of the potential ingredients would likely have been imported from outside Egypt.
The team has recreated one of the scents used in Senetnay’s mummification.
Coined ‘the scent of the eternity’, the ancient aroma will be presented at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark in an upcoming exhibition.
The researchers used advanced analytical techniques including Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry, High-Temperature Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry, and Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry – to reconstruct the substances that helped to preserve and scent Senetnay for eternity.
Study leader Barbara Huber said: “We analyzed balm residues found in two canopic jars from the mummification equipment of Senetnay that were excavated over a century ago by Howard Carter from Tomb KV42 in the Valley of the Kings.”
Today, the jars are housed in the Museum August Kestner in Hannover, Germany.
Christian Loeben, curator at the museum, said: “These complex and diverse ingredients, unique to this early time period, offer a novel understanding of the sophisticated mummification practices and Egypt’s far-reaching trade routes.”
Doctoral researcher Huber said: “Our methods were also able to provide crucial insights into balm ingredients for which there is limited information in contemporary ancient Egyptian textual sources.”
The work also highlights the trade connections of the ancient Egyptians.
If the presence of dammar resin is confirmed, as in balms recently identified from Saqqara dating to the 1st millennium BC, it would suggest that the ancient Egyptians had access to this Southeast Asian resin via long-distant trade almost a millennium earlier than previously known.
Working closely with the French perfumer Carole Calvez and the sensory museologist Sofia Collette Ehrich, the team meticulously recreated the scent based on their analytical findings.
Huber added: “’The scent of eternity’ represents more than just the aroma of the mummification process.
“It embodies the rich cultural, historical, and spiritual significance of Ancient Egyptian mortuary practices.”
She said the pioneering research will also enable visually impaired people to participate more fully in the exhibition of Egypt’s past.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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