Scientists recreate 'scent of eternal life' from an extremely dead source

The scent is the centrepiece of a new exhibit in a Danish museum and represents a practice from more than 3,500 years ago

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A museum in Denmark is giving visitors a chance to inhale what it calls “the fragrance of eternal life” or “the scent of eternity,” after scientists succeeded in recreating the smell of an embalming oil used more than 3,500 years ago to mummify Senetnay, an Egyptian noblewoman. It smells good.

The scent is the centrepiece of a new exhibit at the Moesgaard Museum in eastern Denmark. Ancient Egypt — Obsessed With Life opened this month and runs until next August. The exhibit will concentrate on the pharaonic period and the Bronze and Iron Ages, from about 2600 BC to 700 BC.

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Curators say that, rather than focusing on death and burial chambers, their exhibit “will follow events from the very moment the deceased takes their last breath, through the complex embalming process and onward on the journey as a mummy to the grave, through the underworld and back again into the brilliant sunshine of the afterlife and eternal existence.”

Senetnay was the wet-nurse of the pharaoh Amenhotep II, who reigned for a quarter-century, and died about 1400 BC. Because of her close relationship with the ruler, Senetnay was buried in the royal cemetery now known as the Valley of the Kings.

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Senetnay’s remains did not survive to the present day, but in 1900 the jars that contained her internal organs (removed before mummification) were found by archeologist Howard Carter, who would later discover the tomb of Tutankhamun. In 1935, two of those jars, once containing her liver and lungs, were added to the Egyptian collection at the August Kestner Museum in Hanover, Germany.

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Almost a century later, a team led by Barbara Huber of the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology was able to tease out the scent of the embalming fluid.

“We analyzed balm residues found in two canopic jars from the mummification equipment of Senetnay that were excavated over a century ago,” Huber said in a press release from the institute. The team found that the balms contained a blend of beeswax, plant oil, fats, bitumen, a balsamic substance, and various tree resins. The detection of larch tree and pistacia tree resin suggests the ingredients were sourced from as far away as India and Southeast Asia.

The team then turned to French perfumer Carole Calvez and sensory museologist Sofia Collette Ehrich to help recreate the scent based on their findings. The resulting smell is not unpleasant, with a warm, woody scent and a hint of tar and sweetness.

“It’s not like a perfume per se, or the concept we have today of a perfume,” Huber told the web site Atlas Obscura. “It was really for preserving the body for the afterlife. But another thing that is really interesting is the ancient Egyptians really didn’t want to stink in the afterlife, and this is where the smell and the nice aromas come into play.”

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Huber also wrote a scientific paper on her findings, titled Biomolecular Characterization of 3500-Year-Old Ancient Egyptian Mummification Balms from the Valley of the Kings. “These are the richest, most complex balms yet identified for this early time period, and they shed light on balm ingredients for which there is limited information in Egyptian textual sources,” she wrote in the paper.

“They highlight both the exceptional status of Senetnay and the myriad trade connections of the Egyptians in the 2nd millennium BCE. They further illustrate the excellent preservation possible even for organic remains long removed from their original archaeological context.”

She added: “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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