What did Egyptian embalming smell like?

A trip down mummery lane...
08 September 2023

Interview with 

Barbara Huber, Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology


Senetnay's canopic jar


Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have recreated one of the scents used in the mummification of an important Egyptian woman called Senetnay more than three-and-a-half-thousand years ago. Will Tingle has been speaking to Barbara Huber about what her team did, and some of the surprising components that were used in the re-enactment:

Barbara - We did a number of chemical analysis on samples we took from the embalming material. So we first sampled the remains of the lady Senetnay, took the samples to the lab, then extracted them and analysed them with instruments such as GCMS, which is gas chromatography, coupled to mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry. So what these techniques do is basically break down a substance, a mixture, into the individual molecules, and then based on these molecules, we could identify and recreate the original ingredients that went into the mixture.

Will - So what was in the original mixture then?

Barbara - It was a really, really rich composition of different substances. We found fats and plant oils, beeswax. Then also a number of different resins, for example, larch resin. Then we also found bitumen, which is an asphalt like substance and a resin, which is either coming from pistachio trees or from damas trees. And this was a very interesting finding for us because the damas resin comes from a tree which is exclusive to Southeast Asian rainforests. It was a very surprising finding for us because it's very far away from the usual realm of the Egyptian empire. So it kind of hinted to a really long distance straight connection already in the mid second millennium.

Will - That's extraordinary. It's a very exotic import for the time, isn't it?

Barbara - Exactly. Yeah, it's very exotic and also very rare for this time period. We have not found that in any of the materials from this time. It has been discovered recently in another mummification balm, but from almost a thousand years later. And so if this would indeed also be damas then we would have evidence for this kind of long distance trade relationship almost a thousand years earlier.

Will - The use of such a rare substance in the process of mummification therefore must imply that the person involved, whilst not being a pharaoh, was something of an elite member of society. It's almost like today people try to display their social standing by wearing expensive high-end fragrances.

Barbara - Well, yeah, this was also one of our questions because the context of of Senetnay is also quite extraordinary because she was the wet nurse of the Pharaoh Amenhotep II and she was also buried within the Valley of the Kings, which is usually only for the pharaohs. And so we already knew that she must have been important to the pharaoh and have a kind of high social standing. And so we were also really interested into looking into her embalming material and see whether or not her embalming reflects her high social standing. And then finding something like this exotic resin and also the complexity of the mixture really reinforced this understanding or this notion of her as a high status person.

Will - Of all the substances you've mentioned so far that you found were a part of this balming material, you have bitumens and resins. Obviously they're very good at embalming things because they go hard, but is it also, do you think, a coincidence or a happy accident that they cover up the smell of a dead body quite well?

Barbara - Yeah, that's an interesting side of it. I mean, a lot of these substances have very strong smells. You know, think about bitumen when like a fresh tar laid on the street, you really smell that, right? Or like the coniferous resins are really strong resins as well. So I think this is perhaps one of the aspects of choosing that. But then on the other hand, as you said, like the statue resin or the bitumen, they really go hard. They form like a layer that avoids the tissue getting moist. And also they have a lot of bioactive properties, so they're like antimicrobial, insecticidal. So they also avoid insects. So they have a lot of different properties that are really good for preserving the body for eternity.

Will - And you worked with a perfume manufacturer as well, didn't you, during this process? So any chance of it becoming something we find on the shop shelves?

Barbara - <laugh>, I don't know if this would be like a perfume you would like to wear, but, it was a very interesting process working with a perfumer because they have a very different perspective on the materials than like we as the chemists do.


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