Researchers at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Geoanthropology, led by Barbara Huber, have successfully recreated a fragrance used in the mummification of an important Egyptian noblewoman over 3,500 years ago.
This ancient aroma, termed as “the scent of eternity,” is set to be unveiled at an upcoming exhibition at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark, where visitors will have the rare opportunity to experience it.
The ancient scent will provide a unique insight into the ancient Egyptian process of mummification.
The research focused on the mummification substances used to embalm Senetnay, a noble lady from the 18th dynasty, circa 1450 BCE.
Advanced analytical techniques, such as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, were employed to reconstruct the substances used to preserve and scent Senetnay for eternity.
“We analyzed balm residues found in two canopic jars from the mummification equipment of Senetnay that were excavated over a century ago by Howard Carter from Tomb KV42 in the Valley of the Kings,” explained Huber. The jars are currently housed in the Museum August Kestner in Hannover, Germany.
The analysis revealed that the balms contained a blend of beeswax, plant oil, fats, bitumen, Pinaceae resins (most likely larch resin), a balsamic substance, and dammar or Pistacia tree resin.
“These complex and diverse ingredients, unique to this early time period, offer a novel understanding of the sophisticated mummification practices and Egypt’s far-reaching trade-routes,” noted Christian E. Loeben, Egyptologist and curator at the Museum August Kestner.
Huber also pointed out that the methods used in the study provided “crucial insights into balm ingredients for which there is limited information in contemporary ancient Egyptian textual sources.”
The study not only sheds light on ancient mummification practices but also highlights the extensive trade connections of the Egyptians in the 2nd millennium BCE.
“The ingredients in the balm make it clear that the ancient Egyptians were sourcing materials from beyond their realm from an early date,” said Professor Nicole Boivin, a senior researcher on the project. “The number of imported ingredients in her balm also highlights Senetnay’s importance as a key member of the pharaoh’s inner circle.”
The imported ingredients included larch tree resin from the northern Mediterranean and possibly dammars from trees in Southeast Asian tropical forests.
If the presence of dammar resin is confirmed, as in balms recently identified from Saqqara dating to the 1st millennium BCE, it would suggest that the ancient Egyptians had access to this Southeast Asian resin via long-distant trade almost a millennium earlier than previously known.
In collaboration with French perfumer Carole Calvez and sensory museologist Sofia Collette Ehrich, the research team meticulously recreated the scent based on their analytical findings.
“‘The scent of eternity’ represents more than just the aroma of the mummification process. It embodies the rich cultural, historical, and spiritual significance of Ancient Egyptian mortuary practices,” said Huber.
By recreating this scent for museum display, the researchers hope to offer visitors an immersive, multisensory experience, allowing them to connect with the past in a uniquely olfactory way, while also demystifying the Ancient Egyptian mummification process.
This innovative approach not only bridges a deep temporal divide but also makes new research on ancient mummification accessible to a broader audience, including visually impaired individuals, thereby providing a more inclusive exhibition of Egypt’s past.