Scientists from the Max Planck Institute in Germany have successfully identified the ancient aromatic recipe responsible for preserving an Egyptian noblewoman who underwent mummification approximately in 1450 BC, meticulously recreating what is often referred to as “the scent of eternity”. According to the findings of the researchers, the unique blend of components present in this substance serves as evidence that the woman belonged to an elite family characterized by significant wealth and privilege.
These breakthroughs have been made possible by advancements in chemical analysis technology, which allowed for the detection of individual components within the balm residue found in canopic jars that once securely held the mummified organs.
The noblewoman, known as Senetnay, held an esteemed position as the wet nurse to Pharaoh Amenhotep II, evident from her title as the “Ornament of the King” and her resting place in a royal tomb within the Valley of the Kings. The complexity of the balms that preserved her organs, stored in four separate jars, further underscores her elite status. Since the excavation of these jars in 1900 CE, Senetnay had remained a mystery awaiting to be unravelled.
In ancient Egypt, mummification stood as the pinnacle of the art of preserving the deceased, a practice that endured for nearly 4000 years and was an integral part of the elaborate burial customs we are familiar with today through the remnants they left behind.
Despite the fascination with ancient Egyptian texts, there exists a scarcity of written sources that delve into the sacred mummification process, leaving us largely in the dark regarding the precise details of the recipe used.
The two canopic jars that once housed Senetnary’s lungs and liver have been part of the Egyptian collection at the Museum August Kestner in Hannover, Germany, since 1935. Remarkably, these containers survived the destruction brought about by World War II by being stored in a salt mine. As for the other two containers, which were not included in the study, they are currently held in collections elsewhere.
While the actual contents of these containers have long disappeared, researchers managed to carefully scrape the inner surfaces of the jars to examine the residues left behind by the embalming substances, as well as what had permeated the porous limestone of the containers.
The precise recipes employed in the mummification process have been the subject of ongoing debate, primarily because ancient Egyptian texts do not specify exact ingredients. The research team embarked on their quest to identify the ingredients of the balm in 2021, employing a range of highly advanced analytical techniques. Interestingly, there were slight variations in the balms found in the two jars, suggesting that different ingredients may have been utilized depending on which organ was being preserved.
The balm composition included a combination of beeswax, plant oils, animal fats, the naturally occurring petroleum substance bitumen, and various resins. Additionally, compounds such as coumarin and benzoic acid were identified in the mixture. Coumarin, known for its vanilla-like aroma, is typically found in pea plants and cinnamon. Benzoic acid is naturally present in resins and gums sourced from trees and shrubs.
In the jar designated for storing Senetnay’s lungs, researchers detected fragrant resins originating from larch trees, as well as a substance that could be either dammar from trees indigenous to India and Southeast Asia or resin derived from Pistacia trees belonging to the cashew family.
The presence of specific ingredients suggests that the ancient Egyptians had established extensive trade routes and networks. Notably, the presence of larch tree resin, which hails from the northern Mediterranean and central Europe, and potentially dammars, resins exclusive to Southeast Asian tropical forests, highlights the expansive scope of Egyptian trade routes during the mid-2nd millennium BC.
Once the ingredients had been identified, the research team collaborated with French perfumer Carole Calvez and sensory museologist Sofia Collette Ehrich to authentically recreate the scent of the ancient balm.
This process spanned several months and required numerous iterations before they successfully achieved a historically accurate and evocative aroma.