Friday, June 21, 2024

Secrets of ancient Egyptian trade unlocked in lady’s burial balm

Balms used in the mummification of an ancient Egyptian woman almost 3,500 years ago contained ingredients that may have been sourced as far afield as Southeast Asia and the Alps.

The balms are the most complex yet analysed for the period and point to the high status of the noble lady Senetnay and the sweeping extent of ancient trade routes.

Senetnay, who lived in Egypt around 1450BC, was wet nurse to the future Pharaoh Amenhotep II 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 at Thebes. The jars were excavated in 1900 by the British archaeologist Howard Carter who is best known for his later discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Barbara Huber and Professor Nicole Boivin of the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Germany, along with colleagues, analysed the organic substances found in six balm samples from two jars used to store Senetnay’s lungs and liver. Although the organs were lost after excavation, balm residue survived on the inner surfaces of the empty vessels, which are now held in the Egyptian collection of the Museum August Kestner in Hanover.

To identify the various substances, the team used a pioneering combination of gas chromatography mass spectrometry, high temperature gas chromatography mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry analyses.

Limestone canopic jar of Senetnay (c. 1450 BC), held at Museum August Kestner, Hanover (Inv.-No. 1935.200.1018). Photo: Christian Tepper, Museum August Kestner

Huber said: “We already knew, from her backstory, that she was an important person. So we were interested in whether or not her mummification would reflect her social status. We expected that we might find more aromatic products in embalming material for a person like her than for a total commoner. The results showed that, indeed, there were a lot of exotic products in her balm that were probably very expensive and rare. And this reflects her high standing even more.”

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. The authors also identified the compounds coumarin and benzoic acid in samples from both jars. Coumarin has a vanilla-like scent and is found in plants including cinnamons and pea plants, while benzoic acid occurs in fragrant resins and gums obtained from several types of trees and shrubs.

While the composition of the balms from both jars appeared very similar, the authors identified two substances that were only present in the jar used to store Senetnay’s lungs.

Specifically, the presence of larixol suggests the embalmers had access to larch resin even though larch did not grow anywhere near Egypt. They believe it most likely derives from larch grown in Central Europe, around the Alps, although they note that larch also grew in Siberia and around the Himalayas. Huber said: “We don’t know that much about the regional trade networks but there’s a very likely possibility that people in Central Europe, for example, transported this kind of resin to the Mediterranean coast. And this is where the ancient Egyptians acquired it.”

Meanwhile, the presence of dammarenolic acid suggests the embalmers also used dammar resin, which could only have been obtained from trees grown in southeast Asia. However, the acid could possibly have formed as a result of a breakdown of resin from pistacia trees — a group that is part of the cashew family and that grew in the Levant as well as farther from Egypt.

Barbara Huber working on ancient Egyptian samples in the biochemistry lab at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology, Germany. Photo: Chris Leipold

In their paper, in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers write: “If confirmed, the presence of dammar resin, which has recently been identified in balms from Saqqara, dating to the first millennium BCE, would suggest that the ancient Egyptians had access to Southeast Asian resins that arrived in the Mediterranean by long-distant trade almost a millennium earlier.”

And they note: “Some support for such long-distance links is perhaps indicated by the finding of peppercorns in the nostrils of the mummy of the pharaoh Ramses II, dated ca. 1200BCE. This spice is endemic only to the wet forests of southern India. Even earlier African-Indian exchange is hinted at by the presence of crops of African origin in the Indian subcontinent by 2000BCE, where they were being grown on Harappan farms.”

The two balms are more elaborate than others analysed for the period and contain ingredients that were commonly employed only much later, around the first millennium BC. The researchers said that Senetnay may, therefore, have been a forerunner of a later trend. Nevertheless, future studies might find balms of comparable or greater complexity in other early samples.

Senetnay with her husband Sennefer and daughter Mutnefert in a statue now at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Photo: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In any case, the researchers said it was clear that Senetnay received special treatment. In the paper, they write: “The ingredients in her mummification balms give the impression of a woman of exceptional social standing, suggesting, along with other lines of evidence, that she was a highly valued member of the pharaoh’s entourage. The elaborate treatment of Senetnay’s remains is echoed in the broader pattern of her burial. Her very presence in the Valley of the Kings, a necropolis normally reserved for pharaohs and powerful nobles, points to extraordinary privilege, and the high regard in which Senetnay was likely held by the Pharaoh.”

Indeed, Huber suspects that Amenhotep was instrumental in honouring his beloved wet nurse. She said: “Senetnay’s husband, who was the mayor of Thebes, was buried elsewhere. Her burial must have been authorised by the pharaoh she was very dear to, and he probably organised her embalming too.”

The Egyptians’ precise motives for mummifying and embalming their dead remain disputed. In their paper, the scientists write that embalming was carried out to preserve remains for the afterlife. A recent exhibition at Manchester Museum argued that mummification should be viewed as a “transformation of a human body into a divine image”.

The individual ingredients of the balms used in Senetnay’s case would have been effective both in preserving her organs and masking noxious odours.

Huber said: “The substances we have identified carry a lot of bioactive properties. For example, the coniferous resins have properties or compounds that are insecticidal, antimicrobial and antibacterial, so selecting them made absolute sense. And, for example, the bitumen or pistacia resin forms a protective layer and at the same time repels moisture and other things. So, the combination was not random. It was something that was really thought out.”

She pointed out that, where organs had not been removed and discarded from such jars by grave robbers or previous generations of archaeologists, they were often found in a remarkable state of preservation, as visible in CT scans. “So this kind of preservation really works.”

The team worked with a perfumer to recreate the odour of one of the balms using authentic materials. As Huber describes it: “The dominant smell was a very piney, woody scent of the coniferous resin. And then it is intermingled a bit with the sweetness of the beeswax and the plant oils. But you also have this smoky, rich scent of the bitumen, and the fresh, citrusy tone of the dammar or pistacia resin. So it has really rich scents. Smelling it several times, it really develops and you smell different things.”

Huber said the public would be able to smell the recreated balm and view the raw materials in an upcoming exhibition about ancient Egypt at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark.

The photograph at the top of the article shows the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut in the Valley of the Kings, which was already standing in the lifetime of Senetnay. Image: Shutterstock

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