In 1900 – some 22 years before he discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb – British archaeologist Howard Carter opened another tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
In tomb KV42, Carter found the remains of a noblewoman named Senetnay, who died around 1450 BC. died.
More than a century later, a French perfumer recreated one of the scents used in Senetnay’s mummification.
And the connection between these two events is our research, published today in Scientific Reports, looking at the ingredients in this ancient Egyptian balm recipe.
Recreate the smells of a vanished world
Our team used state-of-the-art chemistry technologies to reconstruct ancient scents from Senetnay jars found in the tomb.
We used three variations of chromatographic and mass spectrometric techniques that break down samples into individual molecules.
Certain substances have different molecular arrangements. Based on these characteristic compounds and by comparison with known reference materials, we have identified the different ingredients.
After Carter’s excavation, two of Senetnay’s jars recovered from the tomb ended up in Germany. Therefore, in 2020, we contacted the August Kestner Museum in Hanover and asked them about the possibility of analyzing the glasses using these new methods.
These glasses are called canopic glasses. They are made of limestone and were used to store the mummified organs of the ancient Egyptian elite.
Eventually, however, Senetnay’s jars lost their contents. Only faint remnants of the mummified organs remained at the bottom of the jars.
Notably, chemical analysis allows scientists to extract such trace remains and reconstruct the original contents.
An old list of ingredients
Our analysis revealed that the balms used to coat and preserve Senetnay’s organs contained a mixture of beeswax, vegetable oil, fats, bitumen, an unidentified balsamic substance, and resins from trees in the pine family (most likely larch).
Another substance has been narrowed down to either a resin called dammar, found in coniferous and hardwood trees in Southeast and East Asia, or pistacia tree resin.
The results were exciting; These were the richest and most complex balms ever identified for this early period. It was clear that a lot of effort went into making the balms. This indicates that Senetnay, the nurse of the future pharaoh Amenhotep II, was an important figure in her time.
The results also add to the chemical evidence that the ancient Egyptians searched far and wide to source ingredients for mummification balms, relying on extensive trade networks that stretched into areas outside their empire.
Since pine trees are not endemic to Egypt, the larch resin may have come from a more distant area, most likely Central Europe.
The most puzzling ingredient was the one identified as either pistachio or dammar resin.
If the ingredient was pistachios, obtained from the resin of pistachio trees, it likely came from a coastal region of the Mediterranean. If it was dammar, however, it would have come from a much more distant Southeast Asia.
A recent analysis of balsams from the Saqqara site identified Dammar in a later balsam from the first millennium BC. If the presence of dammar resin is confirmed in Senetnay’s case, it would indicate that the ancient Egyptians had access to this Southeast Asian resin via long-distance trade almost a millennium earlier than previously thought.
A perfume for eternity
Senetnay’s balm would have scented not only her remains, but also the workshop in which it was made and the course of her funeral rites—it would have scented the air with notes of pine, balsam, vanilla, and other exotic ones.
The vanilla scent comes from a compound called coumarin and from vanillic acid, and in this case likely reflects the breakdown of wood tissue.
However, due to the volatility of scents, Senetnay’s unique scents gradually disappeared when her remains were dumped in the Valley of the Kings.
Earlier this year, we began a collaboration with perfumer Carole Calvez and sensory museologist Sofia Collette Ehrich to bring Senetnay’s lost scent back to life.
The results of these efforts will be on display in October at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark as part of the new exhibition ‘Egypt – obsessed with life’.
The new scent display will be like a time machine for the nose. It offers a unique and unrivaled insight into the smells of ancient Egypt and the scents used to perfume and preserve elite figures such as Senetnay.
Such immersive experiences offer new ways of engaging with the past and contribute to broader participation, especially for the visually impaired.
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Written by Nicole Boivin, Barbara Huber/The conversation.