Discovering the Fragrant Balms in Ancient Egypt’s Burial Rites

The mummified remains of  an ancient Egyptian noblewoman named Senetnay were excavated by Howard Carter in 1900. Today, due to new scientific methods researchers are able to determine information that the early archaeologists couldn’t.

Senetnay lived in Egypt around 1,450 BC, was wet nurse to the Pharaoh Amenhotep II during his infancy, and bore the title “Ornament of the King”. After her death, her mummified organs were stored in four jars in a royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Scientists have now been able to determine the ingredients of balms used in the mummification of Senetnay.

Barbara Huber, Nicole Boivin and colleagues analysed the substances found within six balm samples from two jars that were used to store Senetnay’s lungs and liver. Both 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. They also identified the presence of the compounds coumarin and benzoic acid within samples from 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.

a jar tipped over with the coumarin beans spilling out
Dried coumarin beans Mecredis / Fred Benenson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While the composition of the balms from both jars appeared to be very similar, there were two substances that were only present in the jar used to store Senetnay’s lungs. These were a compound known as larixol — which is found in larch resin — and another fragrant resin possibly either dammar, which is obtained from dipterocarp trees that grow in India and southeast Asia, or a resin obtained from Pistacia trees — a group that is part of the cashew family. The presence of these ingredients in only one of the two jars could indicate that different balms were used to preserve different organs.

Based on a review of previous analyses of mummification balms, the researchers believe that the composition of those applied to Senetnay’s organs was relatively complex compared to others from the same period. Additionally, they suggest that most of the potential ingredients would likely have been imported from locations outside Egypt.

The complexity of the balms and use of imported ingredients used in the mummification of Senetnay suggest that they are a reflection of her high social status and indicate that she was a highly valued member of the Pharaoh’s entourage.

‘Biomolecular characterization of 3500-year-old ancient Egyptian mummification balms from the Valley of the Kings‘ is published in Scientific Reports.

Leave a Reply