The scientists who carried out this reconstruction presented it in a study as “the aroma of the afterlife”.
To be human is to wonder what happens after you die. Is there life after death? If so, what does it look like? But one question you may not have asked yourself is: What does the afterlife smell like? However, for the ancient Egyptians, there were very specific answers, and new research has shed light on this aspect of their burial practices.
The analysis of the oils and resins of the calcareous vessels which contained the organs of Sénetnay a noblewoman of the 18th dynasty who lived around 1450 BC, revealed a carefully formulated blend of ingredients.
Researchers presented it in a scientific report as “the aroma of the beyond”. The smell will be revealed in an interactive exhibition at Moesgaard Museum from Denmark entitled Ancient Egypt: obsessed with life , which will open on October 13, 2023.
Senetnay’s role as nurse of the future king Amenhotep II assured her place in the afterlife and saw her buried in the King’s Valley . Unfortunately, his remains did not survive. But the embalming resin used to prepare it does. His scent was both a reflection of his own status in royal circles and a declaration of the king’s wealth and power.
A high status perfume
Amenhotep II inherited from his father, Thutmose III one of the greatest empires ever known. Senetnay was fortunate to live at a time of great prosperity for Egypt and to be part of the king’s entourage. Their canopic containers (containers which preserved the viscera of the dead for the afterlife) were recovered from the tomb KV42 For Howard Carter in 1900.
The resin is not typical of an ancient Egyptian burial, not even a high-status product, as it was extremely expensive and contained ingredients from faraway lands.
These balms, resins and oils used in mummification provided pleasant aromas and practical functions in the preservation process but they also had spiritual significance.
This specific recipe appears to have been mixed specifically for Senetnay, as it is different from the other samples. She may have had a say in what was worn, perhaps even her favorite perfume.
The scent of the afterlife
Mummified human remains tend to have a relatively benign odor. The infusion of aromatic oils and resins has a lasting effect, especially in a quiet burial where the aroma has been contained.
There is often a distinctive scent of pine or cedar, with some spice of clove, cumin and myrrh, and warm notes of plants, flowers and trees. Senetnay balm is mainly based on beeswax, vegetable oil and tree resin, with the addition of fats, bitumen and other resins.
The ingredients are a snapshot of the Egyptian empire and its scope; several of them came from a considerable distance. It is likely that larch resin was obtained from the northern Mediterranean. Southeast Asia (perhaps more specifically India) is present in what is perhaps damar tree resin .
Investigators have not yet conclusively established whether dammar was used; If so, this gives an indication of the extent of the ancient Egyptian trade route, which extended to the tropical forests of Southeast Asia.
Cypress, cedar or juniper oils and bitumen add layers of aromatic, preservative and antibacterial properties. Beeswax is antibacterial and acts as a binder and sealant. Animal fats provide consistency and transport oils well, and the mixture is enhanced with vegetable and floral oils such as sesame or olive.
The resulting balm would have been intensely fragrant and crucial to the survival of Senetnay’s remains. Written records confirm the close association of smell with life and death.
An ancient Egyptian word for bouquet or garland was a homonym for life: ankh . A moving and beautiful composition from the 12th Dynasty known, among other titles, as The dialogue of a man with his Ba (soul), says: “Death is before me today, like the aroma of myrrh, like the aroma of flowers.”
Smell at the museum
He Smell is one of our most powerful senses, with the ability to transport us to another time or place by triggering memories. making it an unusual but effective way to engage museum visitors with the past .
Smelling what was in the balm conveys more than just a description and can enhance the experience for certain groups of visitors, such as the visually impaired or those who participate more fully in such exhibits through an interactive approach.
The intangible aspects of ancient Egyptian funerary practice are inherently difficult to study, and analysis of embalming materials tends to focus on the body itself and its wrappings. However, recently some research projects attempted to fill this gap in research, focusing on the treatment of organs like Senetnay’s.
The experience of an ancient burial would have encompassed smell, sight, taste, sound, light, darkness and much more. Although we can reconstruct the embalming and burial process through artifacts, We are certainly missing very important aspects of the ritual that connects the deceased to their family, their community and the ancestors they hope to join in the afterlife.
The luxury of Senetnay’s provisioning for the afterlife should not make us forget how profound and essential the materials and ritual were for his transfiguration in the tomb, complete and perfect for eternity, as fragrant as the gods.
* Claire Isabelle Gilmour PhD student, Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Bristol
I am David Jack and I have been working in the news industry for over 10 years. As an experienced journalist, I specialize in covering sports news with a focus on golf. My articles have been published by some of the most respected publications in the world including The New York Times and Sports Illustrated.