Ingredients Used to Embalm Egyptian Senetnay Prove Her Elite Status
A team of scientists led by archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute in Germany have just completed a comprehensive analysis of the balm or embalming fluid used in mummification procedures performed on an ancient Egyptian woman who lived in the middle of the second millennium BC. According to the researchers, the exotic mix of ingredients used in this substance confirms that the woman came from an elite family that enjoyed great wealth and privilege.
Senetnay Proves Egyptians Were the True Masters of Mummification
The mummified remains of an ancient noblewoman known as Senetnay were first discovered in 1900 by the legendary Egyptologist Howard Carter. They were found in a tomb near the modern city of Luxor, which was built on the site of the ancient capital of Thebes near the banks of the Nile River in southern Egypt.
Past research has established that Senetnay lived around 1,450 BC, which makes her a citizen of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom. In fact, Senetnay was the wet nurse of the future Pharaoh Amenhotep II when he was a baby, given the title of “Ornament of the King” as a result of her position.
When Senetnay died, her organs were embalmed or mummified and placed in four jars. They were kept inside a royal tomb in the Valley of Kings, where New Kingdom pharaohs and aristocrats were regularly buried.
In the new study, six balm samples were extracted from two jars that had been used to store Senetnay’s liver and lungs. Even though these jars had been emptied of their contents long ago, it was still possible to scrape minute samples of dried mummification balm off the jars’ insides.
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Barbara Huber working on ancient Egyptian samples in the Biochemistry laboratory at Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology in Jena, Germany. (Chris Leipold / Nature)
These samples were subjected to a sophisticated chemical analysis, to identify all the ingredients they contained. In a new article published in Scientific Reports, the scientists involved in this research have reported that the balm samples from each jar contained virtually the same combination of natural elements: beeswax, animal fats, plant oils, the petroleum product bitumen, and resins from pines and other coniferous trees. The scientists also found traces of the chemical compounds coumarin, which can be extracted from pea plants and cinnamon trees, and benzoic acid, a chemical found in resins and gums in many different kinds of trees.
While all of these were found in both jars, the researchers did find two substances that were used exclusively in the jar that held the ancient noblewoman’s lungs. The first of these was a chemical compound called larixol, which is extracted from the resin of the coniferous larch tree. The second ingredient has not been positively identified yet, although it is believed to be either a fragrant resin called dammar, which comes from trees that grow in India and southeast Asia, or another type of resin that can be extracted from trees that belong to the cashew family.
What the latter discovery reveals is that the ancient Egyptians used specialized embalming substances for different organs. This shows just how much research the Egyptians put into mummification science, which they perfected to a level unmatched in all of human history.
Canopic jars and numerous model vessels made of solid stone, inscribed for the Royal Nurse Senetnay, wife of the Mayor of Thebes Sennefer, were discovered in the Valley of the Kings. (Public Domain)
Mummification Balms Prove Senetnay Was Valued Member of King’s Entourage
There have been other studies performed on mummification balms used in ancient Egypt. Most of these fluids used a relatively simple mixture of ingredients, all of which would have come from local plant sources.
But the balms used to preserve Senetnay’s organs were different. They included more ingredients, indicating more complexity and more specialized manufacture, and the majority of those ingredients would have been imported from outside Egypt. This means they would have been harder to obtain, and therefore more expensive, which suggests that the balms made from these substances would have been reserved for families of high status. Presumably these balms were of a higher quality and would preserve organs for longer than simpler mixtures.
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In Senetnay’s case, she would have been a valuable member of the king’s entourage for much of her life. After growing up, Amenhotep II became the seventh pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, serving in this position from 1427 BC until his death in 1401 BC. Senetnay’s status as a royal wet nurse would have been enough to guarantee her some privilege throughout her life, but her standing was enhanced even more when she married an ancient Egyptian elite known as Sennefer.
This man was a close confidante of Amenhotep II, who appointed him “Mayor of the City” (the city being Thebes, Egypt’s capital in the 15th century BC) and “Overseer of the Granaries and Fields, Gardens and Cattle of Amun.”
To what extent these titles were honorary and to what extent they involved actual administrative duties is unknown. But there is no doubt the pharaoh held Sennefer and his wife in high regard, which is why he gave Sennefer permission to place a double stone statue of himself and his wife inside a temple at the Karnak complex.
It seems Senetnay was in a unique position of high status, so much so that she continued to enjoy special perks even after death, including access to the finest embalming fluids available. “These are the richest, most complex balms yet identified for this early time period,” the scientists wrote in their Scientific Reports article. “They highlight both the exceptional status of Senetnay and the myriad trade connections of the Egyptians in the 2nd millennium BC.”
Top image: Detail of section of limestone Canopic Jar of the Egyptian lady Senetnay (c. 1450 BC); Museum August Kestner, Hannover. Source: Christian Tepper / Nature
By Nathan Falde