‘Scent of eternity’: balms used on Egyptian mummy recreated for exhibition

A limestone Canopic jar used in the mummification of Senetnay. (Image: Museum August Kestner, Hannover; Christian Tepper)
A limestone Canopic jar used in the mummification of Senetnay. (Image: Museum August Kestner, Hannover; Christian Tepper)

Researchers have recreated the 'scent of eternity' - the perfume used for Ancient Egyptian noblewoman.

This aroma was used around 3,500 years ago for the mummification of a woman named Senetnay, and the ingredients were are beeswax, plant oil, and tree resin.

Now, this smell has been developed again using advanced analytical techniques that can separate chemicals and identify what they're created from.

“Senetnay’s mummification balm stands out as one of the most intricate and complex balms from that era,” said Barbara Huber, the first author of the research from the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology.

The team analysed balm residue found in two canopic jars used during the mummification of Senetnay after they were excavated from a tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings in 1900 by Howard Carter, the British archeologist who would later become famous for his role in discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun.

They are now in Germany's August Kestner Museum.

The balms were found to have been made using a blend of beeswax, plant oil, fats, bitumen, a balsamic substance, and several resins.

“For instance, certain resins, like the larch tree resin, likely came from the northern Mediterranean and central Europe,” said Huber. “One other substance was narrowed down to either a resin called dammar – exclusive to south-east Asian tropical forests – or Pistacia tree resin. In case it was dammar, this would highlight the extensive trade networks of the Egyptians during the mid-second millennium BCE, bringing in ingredients from afar.”

Egyptologist Christian Loeben, a curator at the August Kestner Museum., said the work offered not just an understanding of the "sophisticated mummification process", but the ancient civilisation's trade routes.

Professor Nicole Boivin, senior researcher on the project, said: "The ingredients in the balm make it clear that the ancient Egyptians were sourcing materials from beyond their realm from an early date.

"The number of imported ingredients in her balm also highlights Senetnay's importance as a key member of the pharaoh's inner circle."

French perfumer Carole Calvez worked with the researchers to recreate the scent, which will be presented at Denmark's Moesgaard Museum this autumn.

The team, led by Barbara Huber, said they hoped it will provide an "immersive, multisensory experience" to visitors, bringing the mystique of Ancient Egyptian mummification to the modern day.

Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, the team say Senetnay lived around 1450BC and was a wet nurse to Pharaoh Amenhotep II.