In 1145 BC, Ramses VI came to the throne of Egypt. In the hymn written to him, the Egyptian subjects at that time described his governance measures as follows: “The first job of the new pharaoh is to get rid of the stench produced by fish and birds in the swamp along the Nile River.” How effective is this project? No way of knowing. But more and more evidence shows that the people of ancient Egypt were quite particular about smell.
You can guess what’s in it from the gas that comes out of the bottle
Catch the clues of the smell
For a long time, due to the lack of technical means and documentation, archaeologists have often been unable to restore ancient “smells”. Now, however, things have taken a turn for the better. In the 21st century, molecular biology technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. At present, archaeologists can initially identify some volatile substances left in antique bottles, ruins, and even mummies.
In 1906, archaeologists discovered a well-preserved tomb of an ancient Egyptian official on the east bank of the Nile, which contained a large number of sealed bottles and jars. For more than a hundred years, archaeologists have not opened these jars to avoid damaging them. Until now, the content of the bottle is still a mystery, and these bottles and jars displayed in the museum always make the display cabinet full of fruity fragrance.
Scientists analyzed the scents to uncover the secrets of what was in the bottle. They first sealed the bottles in plastic bags, collected the volatile substances released by the bottles, and analyzed them using a mass spectrometer. As a result, the contents of the jars are visible. Some bottles emit certain aldehydes and long-chain hydrocarbons, which indicate the presence of beeswax; some bottles emit trimethylamine, which indicates that dried fish may be stored in the bottle; Aldehydes produced by certain fruits. These research results mean that these sealed bottles and jars are most likely to contain food used to nourish the “spirit after death” of the tomb owner. Although the owner of the tomb has been buried for more than 3,400 years, the aroma of these foods can still take us “traveling through time and space”.
The above research is not the only case where “smell” has helped humans reveal the mysteries of ancient Egypt. In 2014, scientists collected some volatile substances from the linen bandages wrapped around a batch of mummies, some of which most likely came from antibacterial preservatives. According to the concentration and composition of these volatile substances, scientists speculate that the ancient Egyptians began to make mummies 1500 years earlier than the academic community generally believed at that time.
A German archaeological team stationed in Taima Oasis for a long time has been working on the ancient smell here. Tama Oasis is located in what is now Saudi Arabia. It is generally believed in the archaeological community that it was a transfer station on the ancient trade routes. Two thousand years ago, Arab merchants transported spice plants such as frankincense and myrrh from southern Arabia to the Mediterranean via this route. Therefore, Taima Oasis is also known as “fragrant road”. Analyzing soot from incense burners unearthed in Taima Oasis, among other forensic work, the team determined that during most of the trading post’s prosperity, the inhabitants of this trading post had a special liking for spice plants, and that certain scents were important to the population. For the ancients living in Taima Oasis, it has a special meaning.
Perfume that ‘Resurrection’ and ‘Cleopatra’ may have worn
When it comes to famous female politicians in history, Cleopatra VII of Egypt’s Ptolemaic Dynasty is definitely on the list. If you think this name looks a bit strange, then her other name will surely make you suddenly realize-“Cleopatra”. She has a beautiful face and a unique fragrance on her body. “The fragrance comes first before the people arrive”, so she has the title of “Cleopatra”. This “Cleopatra” is very obsessed with fragrances. Legend has it that once she coated the sails of her royal ship with a rich-scented substance, and the fragrance wafted ten miles wherever the sailboat went. In response, Shakespeare wrote that Cleopatra’s sails were “so fragrant that even the wind was infatuated with it.” For the beauty of “Cleopatra”, later generations can still speculate through the literature records, but what kind of “infatuation” is the fragrance of “Cleopatra”?
Raw materials used to reproduce the “Cleopatra” perfume
Archaeologists have an answer to this question. In 2019, an archaeological team excavated the ancient Egyptian city of Themis, located north of Cairo in the Nile Delta. During the period, they discovered the ruins of an ancient perfume factory dating back to 300 BC, filled with glass phials and clay amphora. Archaeologists have discovered that one of the amphora contains residues from the period of “Cleopatra”, and it is definitely possible that it is the same perfume as “Cleopatra”. After analysis, the main ingredient of this fragrance is a natural resin extracted from the thorn tree, supplemented by cardamom, green olive oil and cinnamon. Subsequently, two perfume experts used the perfume preparation method in the ancient Greek pharmacology literature as a guide, and used the above ingredients as raw materials to reproduce the perfume that “Cleopatra” might have used. This perfume is much thicker than modern perfumes, almost as viscous as olive oil, with a faint musky scent, rich and spicy, refreshing. Perfume experts describe the scent as “Ancient Egypt’s Chanel No. 5.”
complex scent landscape
In numerous ancient Egyptian texts, the description of aroma occupies a large space, while “smell” seems to be omitted for various reasons-in the beautiful narrative, there is no shed for raising livestock, no open-air garbage dump , and no filthy toilets. Therefore, scientists pointed out that when studying the literature on smell, it should be recognized that the texts left to this day are likely to be written from the perspective of the upper class, and cannot fully represent the “smell landscape” of the society at that time.
The remaining aroma substances of cultural relics and the same perfume copied out of the picture are only the tip of the iceberg of the “smell life” of the ancient Egyptians. Ancient Egypt had a distinct scent landscape—temples, dwellings, streets, workshops and even cemeteries, each with its own unique scent. For example, the priests in ancient Egypt would paint 10 kinds of holy oil on the gods in the temple, so that the fragrance of flowers, incense and meat would permeate the whole temple. Today, archaeologists have yet to find definitive records of the composition of these holy oils. What is certain, though, is that each ingredient has a pleasant smell and holds a lot of meaning. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed that the smell of roasted fat in the temple symbolized peace and majesty to incoming enemies. For another example, craftsmen in shoe shops use tannin, fish oil, etc. to soften leather, and the smell of these tanning materials is unique.
Smell is an important part of human experience. We often associate a certain place or a certain period of time because we smell a certain smell at a certain moment, and this experience varies from person to person. Perhaps, the pharaohs regarded the fragrant palace as a daily life and took this smell for granted. However, at the end of a day of hard work, ancient Egyptian monks, shoemakers and thousands of other ordinary people were more accustomed to sleeping peacefully in the smell that the nobles considered “uncivilized”.