Ingredients within Egyptian mummification balm revealed
Analyzing residue from two canopic jars from the 3,500-year-old tomb of an Egyptian noblewoman, a team of researchers has discovered the ingredients to an Egyptian mummification balm. The team identified over half a dozen different substances used within the balm, publishing their results in the journal Scientific Reports. Coined the “scent of eternity,” the ancient aroma will be presented at the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark in an upcoming exhibition, offering visitors a chance to catch a whiff of the ancient Egyptian mummification process.
Practiced for nearly 4,000 years, mummification is one of the most ubiquitous features of ancient Egypt, predating the pyramids by a millennium. Now, another aspect of this important practice has been unlocked—the ingredients used to preserve and scent the body for eternity.
Performing residue analysis on a pair of canopic jars dating to around 1450 BCE, an international team identified the balm as a blend of beeswax, plant oil, fats, bitumen, larch resin, a balsamic substance, and dammar or pistachio tree resin. “These complex and diverse ingredients, unique to this early period, offer a novel understanding of the sophisticated mummification practices and Egypt’s far-reaching trade routes,” said Egyptologist and museum curator Christian Loeben in a press release by the Max Planck Institute.
Among the ingredients that would have been imported to Egypt are larch resin and dammar. Larch resin is native to the northern side of the Mediterranean, around the area of the Alps. Likewise, dammar resin would have been imported from Southeast Asia along long-distance trade routes. Dammar was used for balms during the first millennium BCE, but it had not previously been identified in this context at such an early date.
The two canopic jars analyzed in the study belonged to Senetnay, the wet nurse of Pharaoh Amenhotep II (r. 1427–1401 BCE). Although Senetnay’s body was not discovered, the four canopic jars that once stored her organs were uncovered in 1900 inside her tomb in the Valley of the Kings. For the study, however, the team was only able to analyze two of the jars, those containing her lungs and liver.
The mummification process was one of the core components of Egyptian funerary procedures and served to preserve the deceased’s body in the afterlife. During this process, the individual’s organs were frequently removed and stored within canopic jars that took various forms. Those of Senetnay were crafted to look like her. Despite the mummification process being very common in ancient Egypt, few written sources provide information on the recipe for the balm, and the information that is available dates to later periods, leaving the recipe from earlier times largely unknown. Interestingly, the results from the two analyzed jars were slightly different, possibly indicating that each organ was treated individually, with different recipes used for each.
While the balm was intended to preserve the organs, it also served the function of a perfume. Working closely with a perfumer, the team meticulously recreated the scent based on their findings, naming their perfume the “scent of eternity.” According to Barbara Huber, lead author of the study, “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.”
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