Ancient Egyptian wet nurse mummy embalmed in high-status ingredients

The ingredients used to embalm ancient Egyptian noblewoman Senetnay have been identified for the first time and indicate her high status.

Senetnay lived some 3,500 years ago. She was wet nurse to the Pharoah Amenhotep II during his infancy and bore the title “Ornament of the King”. Her husband, Sennefer, was Mayor of Thebes, an ancient Egyptian city known to the people who lived there as Waset, located 800 km south of the Mediterranean on the shores of the Nile.

Though her remains were excavated by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1900 CE, scientists have only now been able to identify the origins and complexity of the balms used in her mummification.

The results of the study led by researchers at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology are published in Scientific Reports.

Researcher with hair net and mask doing biomolecular analysis in lab
Barbara Huber working on ancient Egyptian samples in the Biochemistry laboratory at Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology, Jena, Germany. Credit: Chris Leipold.

Substances found within six balm samples from two limestone jars that were used to store Senetnay’s lungs and liver were analysed using gas and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry.

Both balms contained beeswax, plant oils, animal fats, bitumen, and resins from trees belonging to the same coniferous family as pines and larches.

Also present are the compounds coumarin and benzoic acid. Coumarin smells like vanilla and is found in many plants including cinnamons and pea plants. Benzoic acid occurs in resins and gums obtained from several types of trees and shrubs.

Two substances were only found in the jar containing Senetnay’s lungs: larixol, found in larch resin, and another fragrant resin – either dammar, found in dipterocarp trees from India and southeast Asia, or a resin obtained from Pistacia trees from the cashew family.

The jars were found in one of the tombs in the “Valley of the Kings”. This famous archaeological site contains 63 royal tombs from Egypt’s New Kingdom (1550–1069 BCE) and is on the banks of the Nile near the ancient city Luxor. Famous Pharaohs buried there include Tutankhamun, Seti I, and Ramses II.

Senetnay lived during the 18th dynasty, circa 1450 BCE.

The authors say that, compared to other canopic jars from the same period, the composition of the mummification balms is complex. Many of the ingredients would have been imported from outside Egypt.

“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,” the study authors write. “They highlight both the exceptional status of Senetnay and the myriad trade connections of the Egyptians in the 2nd millennium BCE.”

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