Ancient Egyptian mummy balm probably smelled delicious

You'd find some of the same ingredients for this organ-preserving ointment in trendy skincare products today.
A stone jar against a yellow and orange desert background.
This limestone canopic jar contained the organs of Egyptian noblewoman Senetnay preserved in balm. Museum August Kestner/Christian Tepper; Background: Unsplash/Mariam Soliman

While Ancient Egyptians believed in life after death for everyone, mummification was a process typically reserved for royalty—and their friends. Egyptian pharaohs wanted to make sure their close companions joined them in the next world, so they extended the courtesy of mummification to their inner circle. This discovery came to light more than a century ago, when archaeologists inspected the items used to preserve the body of a noblewoman called Senetnay.

And though her life may have ended, her story lives on. Senetnay’s remains continue to spill secrets of ancient Egyptian funeral practices: Two now-empty jars that once held her lungs and liver had been sitting untouched, until recently, in the Museum August Kestner in Germany. An international team of archaeologists analyzed the residue of balm remaining in the containers. From this ointment, the authors of a study published today in Scientific Reports extracted new details on Senetnay’s past life and Egyptian trading relations.

Senetnay lived in Egypt around 1,450 BCE and was the wet nurse for the son of Pharaoh Thutmose III, the future Pharaoh Amenhotep II. Yet her mummifications reflect an almost pharaonic-like status, describes Barbara Huber, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Germany and lead study author. 

[Related: This is the best look yet into ancient Egyptians’ mummy-making chemicals]

In 1900, famed Egyptologist Howard Carter—who also found King Tut’s tomb two decades later—uncovered Senetnay’s remains in the Valley of the Kings. While there was not a complete body, he noticed four jars used to preserve her organs. In mummification, the body is dried out and organs placed in jars filled with antibacterial balms to slow down decomposition. Huber and her colleagues scraped six samples from the leftover balm found in the inner wall and base of the two containers. 

Using several chemical techniques to separate and study the chemical composition of each sample, the authors found remnants of beeswax, plant oils, animal fats, bitumen (a petroleum-based substance), and resins. “The study uses sophisticated scientific methods to analyze the material of the balm in the jars,” says Sahar Saleem, a mummy expert and radiology professor at Cairo University who was not involved in the study. She adds that the archeological methods  used in the research helps go beyond generalizations and Egyptian myths to provide unique knowledge of the royal mummification process.

A scientist works under a fume hood.
Barbara Huber working on ancient Egyptian samples in the biochemistry laboratory at Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Germany. Chris Leipold

Both jars also showed hints of the compounds coumarin and benzoic acid. Sweet, vanilla-scented coumarin is found in cinnamon. Benzoic acid, a derivative from tree bark, has a faint but fragrant smell.

“Because there were so many aromatic materials used in embalming, we assumed the smell was used to mask the stench of decomposing bodies. It must have been a very interesting olfactory experience,” Huber says.

[Related: Egypt is reclaiming its mummies and its past]

Senetnay likely held a high social standing. Some of the substances were not commonly used for embalming in Egypt at the time. Their presence suggests her mummification was handled with extra-special care; these ingredients must have been imported from all over the world. One of the resins used to store her lungs, for example, could have been dammar, obtained from trees that grow exclusively in the tropical rainforests of southeast Asia. “This means in the mid-second millennium there would have already been far-away trade connections from ancient Egypt to other parts of the world,” Huber says.

It’s also possible this resin could have belonged to the Pistacia trees that are normally found in the Mediterranean coastal region. Additionally, there was evidence of larch resin, based on the presence of the medicinal ingredient larixol in the embalming jar. This substance, used in  ancient Rome, comes from a plant species native to an area north of Egypt, across the Mediterranean. Archeologists haven’t fully explored this region for trade connections, Huber notes, which could give more evidence into the relationship between ancient Egypt and Central Europe.