Ancient balm analysis reveals Egyptian mummy’s high status
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Ancient balm analysis reveals Egyptian mummy’s high status

Jun 06, 2023

Museum August Kestner, Hannover / Christian Tepper (museum photographer)

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Balm used to preserve and provide scent to ancient Egyptian noblewomen was recently analyzed by researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology. The study was led by Barbara Huber.

Senetnay – the remains of the ancient Egyptian woman were first excavated in 1900 by Howard Carter. She was a wet nurse to Pharaoh Amenhotep II during his infancy and bore the title “Ornament of the King,” according to a statement by the researchers.

Additionally, the woman’s remains were preserved in four different jars. “After her death, her mummified organs were stored in four jars in a royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings,” scientists stated.

Researchers found six balm samples that were used to store the mummy’s organs. After analyzing the substances in the balm from two jars preserving Senetnay’s lungs and liver, it was determined that the 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 statement further emphasized that the scenting compounds coumarin and benzoic acid were sighted in both jars.

“Coumarin has a vanilla-like scent and is found in a wide range of plants including cinnamons and pea plants, while benzoic acid occurs in fragrant resins and gums obtained from several types of trees and shrubs.”

The high status of Senetnay was discovered upon analyzing the scented balm components. The compounds in both the jars analyzed were similar. One such compound – larixol – is found in larch resin.

Larch resin is a fragrant substance originating from dipterocarp trees that grow in India and Southeast Asia, or they are acquired from Pistacia trees — a group that is part of the cashew family.

The study surmised that the presence of different ingredients in the jars implied that different balms were used to preserve distinct organs.

The imported ingredients also signified that the ancient Egyptian wet nurse was a highly valued member of Pharaoh’s retinue.

The researchers also described the ancient aromas in the jar as ‘the scent of the eternity.’ The scents will be exhibited at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark in an impending display, allowing visitors to experience the ‘ambient smell from antiquity’ present in the mummy.

The scientists recreated the scent found in jars by employing advanced analytical techniques – including cas Chromatography-mass spectrometry, high-temperature gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, and liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry. They reconstructed the substances that helped preserve and scent Senetnay for eternity.

Professor Nicole Boivin, a senior researcher on the project alluding to the analysis findings, said that the balm’s origins highlighted the trade connections of the Egyptians in the 2nd millennium BC.

“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.”

Referring to the methods of the study, Huber noted that this approach was able to provide crucial insights into balm ingredients for which there is limited information in contemporary ancient Egyptian textual sources.

“'The scent of eternity’ represents more than just the aroma of the mummification process,” added Huber. “It embodies the rich cultural, historical, and spiritual significance of Ancient Egyptian mortuary practices.”

The study was published today (31 August) in the journal – Scientific Reports.