22 March 2009

Hatshepsut smells as sweet (with lethal update)

Breaking News: Analysis Results 19 August 2011, update below post

Staying with Pharaoh Hatshepsut one more time, it was reported just last week that the contents of one of Hatshepsut's perfume flasks (below) were examined by scientists working at Bonn University's Egyptian Museum. Screening this flask with a computer tomograph brought to light the desiccated residues of a fluid, which will soon be subjected to further analyses.

Perfume is a mixture of fragrant essential oils and aroma compounds, fixatives and solvents that give off a pleasant smell. When put on a person, the body heat causes the solvent to disperse quickly, leaving the fragrance to evaporate gradually over several hours.

In ancient times, sweet-smelling flowers and rich blends of fragrant spices were steeped in oil (not alcohol) -- which took up the fragrance and was then decanted into jars. A small clay stopper kept the scent from evaporating. Perfumed oils were used as creams and ointments for anointing the head and body. In Egypt's hot dry climate they would have been a blessing to the skin and scalp, while creating a fragrant atmosphere for the living and the dead.

Flowers and floral decorations were an integral part of Egyptian life, and in death they formed gorgeous painted garlands and real bouquets (scroll down to see some funerary bouquets in the previous post). Flowers and plants were included in tombs not only for their intrinsic beauty but also for symbolic reasons. Perfumes, too, would have been prized as much for the esoteric value of the ingredients as for their rarity and cost.

The Egyptians had a ready supply of oils to use as a base for the aromatics: safflower oil, linseed oil, ben oil (Moringa peregrina), balanos oil (Balanites aegyptiaca), olive oil, almond oil, and possibly sesame oil. A tomb wall painting from the 26th Dynasty shows the preparation of perfume from the flowers of white Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum), which must have grown in special gardens in Egypt, since their homeland is in the moister eastern-Mediterranean hills.

Many other flowers and plants used in the perfume industry have been identified in texts, such as henna, slivers of coniferous timber, fragrant bark, resins, and sweet-smelling desert grasses and herbs. Vast quantities of flowers must have been required for the perfume recipes, both for medicinal and aromatic purposes.

The Perfect Perfume

It is a delicate art to create the perfect perfume for a pharaoh.

There are three basic components or notes:

Top notes are scents that can be detected immediately when the perfume is applied; they form that critical first impression. Citrus and ginger are common modern top notes.

Heart notes (middle notes) describe the scent that emerges after the top notes dissipate, usually 2 minutes to one 1 hour after putting it on. They form the main body of a perfume. Lavender and rose are often used as middle notes.

Base notes -- such as musk and plant resins -- also appear after the top notes have disappeared, serving as fixatives to hold and boost the strength of the lighter top and heart notes.

Fit for a Pharaoh

The skill of the ancient craftsmen who made these lovely perfume bottles was probably matched by the art of the perfumers who blended their contents. But, until now, we could do little more than speculate which perfumes were stowed away in these jars.

The flask in Bonn bears an inscription with the name of the Pharaoh Hatshepsut and was probably once in her possession. "So, " says Michael Höveler-Müller, curator of Bonn University's Egyptian Museum, "we considered it might be rewarding to have it screened in the University Clinic's Radiology Department. As far as I know this has never been done before."

The results are crystal clear: The X-rays (left) show a substantial liquid residue in the sealed perfume flask.

This world premier will be followed by another. "Our pharmacologists are now going to analyse this sediment," Höveler-Müller explains. If they are successful, the scientists are hoping to reconstruct the perfume so that, 3,500 years after the death of the pharaoh, the scent could be revitalised.

"In any case, the research will touch new grounds and will maybe enable us to put our noses back into a time more than 3,500 years [ago]."

They are hoping to find spectacular ingredients: "We think it probable that one constituent was incense – the scent of the gods," Höveler-Müller declares.

The Fly in the Ointment

A small narrow-necked flask such as the one with Hatshepsut's name (12 cm [4.7"] tall), he explains, "allows a very economical dosing of the valuable content."

That doesn't sound right.

Look at young Tutankamun splashing out the stuff onto the waiting hand of his queen Ankhesenamun, as shown on the gilded side of his Nekhbet shrine.

Are we to think that Pharaoh Hatshepsut would be any stingier with fragrant oil, even if it did contain incense? Why send those ships to Punt, for goodness sake, if not to hit the high notes -- a superabundance of precious scents for herself, her courtiers and their wives?

Or, simply, That which we call a pharaoh By any other name would smell as sweet.

(Apologies to the author)

My thanks to Gerti Bierenbroodspot who rang me this morning with news of this story.

I have made fragrant use of F. Nigel Hepper, Pharaoh's Flowers (Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew) 1990. You can find the German press release translated into English on the National Geographic News website and at Science Daily 18 March 2009. Information on modern perfumes from Science Daily 1 April 2006.


Upper left: the perfume flask, University of Bonn, press release 15/03/09.

Middle, centre: detail of 26th Dynasty Lintel from the Delta showing
women gathering lily flowers; other scenes show the women extracting their juice by squeezing them in a strip of cloth twisted between two sticks, then presenting it to the owner of the tomb: Louvre E 11377.

Lower Left: X-rays results, University of Bonn press release 15/03.09.

Below, centre: photograph of the Nekhbet shrine from Nikki Wieleba 2006.


Update 19 August 2011

Deadly medication? Scientists shed light on the dark secret of Queen Hatshepsut's flacon

After two years of research it is now clear that the flacon did not hold a perfume; instead, it was a kind of skin care lotion or even medication for a monarch suffering from eczema. In addition, the pharmacologists found a strongly carcinogenic substance. Was Hatshepsut killed by her medicine?

Dr. Helmut Wiedenfeld from the Pharmacy Institute in Bonn analyzed the substances for their ingredients. And it became obvious very quickly that what they had found was not dried-up perfume. The mix contained large amounts of greasy palm oil and nutmeg apple oil, and components with large amounts of unsaturated fatty acids that provide relief for people with skin diseases.

A third group of ingredients contained a lot of hydrocarbons derived from creosote and asphalt. "To this day, creams containing creosote are used to treat chronic skin diseases. Due to the potentially carcinogenic effects of some of its ingredients, creosote has meanwhile been banned from cosmetics completely, and medications containing creosote are now prescription-only."

During antiquity, pitches and resins were used commonly as medicines. Pliny (3.25) mentions a variety of tar-like substances being used as medicine, including cedria. Cedria was the pitch and resin of the cedar tree, being equivalent to the oil of tar and pyrolingeous acid which are used in the first stage of distilling creosote. He recommends cedria to treat ulcers both on the skin and in the lungs. He further speaks of cedria being used as the embalming agent for preparing mummies. (adapted from Wikipedia, Creosote=Medical)

What the pharmacologists detected in Hatshepsut's little bottle was in particular benzo(a)pyrene, a hazardous aromatic hydrocarbon consisting of several carbon rings. "Benzo(a)pyrene is one of the most dangerous carcinogenic substances we know," explained Dr. Wiedenfeld. For example, the risk of contracting lung cancer from cigarette smoke results essentially from this substance.

Dr. Wiedenfeld said. "If you imagine that the Queen had a chronic skin disease and that she found short-term improvement from the salve, she may have exposed herself to a great risk over the years."  

And wouldn't that explain better than economical dosing of perfume the small, narrow neck of the flask? Rather as we would write, "Danger, handle with care".

End of story and, quite possibly, the end of Hatshepsut.

(my thanks to Dorothy King's PhDiva blog for first notice of this news)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for putting a link to this article in your comment on News from the Valley of the Kings. I've enjoyed reading your article - your explanation of top, middle and base notes was very good too.



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