The Fragrance of Ancient Egyptian Nobility: Pine, Balsam, and Bitumen

The Fragrance of Ancient Egyptian Nobility: Pine, Balsam, and Bitumen

In 1900, British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen. However, 22 years prior to this, Carter had opened another tomb in the Valley of the Kings called tomb KV42. In this tomb, he found the remains of a noblewoman named Senetnay, who died around 1450 BCE.

Recently, a French perfumer has managed to recreate one of the scents used in Senetnay’s mummification process. This discovery is linked to our research, which focuses on the ingredients of ancient Egyptian balm recipes. Our team utilized advanced chemistry techniques to reconstruct the scents from jars found in Senetnay’s tomb.

We employed chromatographic and mass spectrometric techniques to break down the samples into individual molecules. By comparing the characteristic compounds to known reference materials, we were able to identify the different ingredients used in the balms.

After Carter’s excavation, two of Senetnay’s jars were taken to Germany. In 2020, we approached the Museum August Kestner in Hannover to analyze these jars using our new methods.

These jars, known as canopic jars, were made of limestone and were used to store the mummified organs of ancient Egyptian elites. Unfortunately, Senetnay’s jars had lost their contents over time. Only faint residues remained on the bottom of the jars.

Through chemical analysis, we were able to reconstruct the original contents of the balms using these trace remains.

Our analysis revealed that the balms used to coat and preserve Senetnay’s organs contained a mixture of beeswax, plant oil, fats, bitumen, an unidentified balsamic substance, and resins from pine trees (most likely larch). One other substance was narrowed down to either dammar resin or Pistacia tree resin.

These findings indicate that significant effort was put into making these balms, suggesting that Senetnay held an important position in her time as the wet nurse of the future Pharaoh Amenhotep II.

Furthermore, our findings contribute to the growing evidence that ancient Egyptians sourced ingredients for mummification balms from extensive trade networks beyond their realm. Since pine trees are not native to Egypt, the larch resin must have come from Central Europe.

The most intriguing ingredient was the one identified as either Pistacia or dammar resin. If it was Pistacia, it likely came from a coastal region of the Mediterranean. However, if it was dammar, it would have originated from South-East Asia. Recent analysis of balms from another site confirmed the presence of dammar resin, suggesting that ancient Egyptians had access to this resin via long-distance trade much earlier than previously believed.

Senetnay’s balm would have not only scented her remains but also the workshop where it was made and the burial rites. The scents of pine, balsam, vanilla, and other exotic notes would have filled the air. However, due to the volatile nature of scents, these unique aromas gradually disappeared once Senetnay’s remains were placed in the Valley of the Kings.

To bring Senetnay’s lost scent back to life, we collaborated with perfumer Carole Calvez and sensory museologist Sofia Collette Ehrich. The results of our efforts will be displayed at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark in October as part of the exhibition “Egypt – Obsessed with Life.” This olfactory display will provide a unique opportunity to experience the scents of ancient Egypt and the perfumes used to preserve elite individuals like Senetnay.

These immersive experiences offer new ways to engage with the past and promote inclusivity, particularly for visually impaired individuals.