Ancient Smells Reveal Secrets Of Egyptian Tomb

To keep the tomb’s inmates alive in the afterlife, jars were filled with fish, fruit, and beeswax balm.

The jars of food intended to nurture the everlasting souls of two ancient Egyptians are still smelling lovely more than 3,400 years later. These odors were analyzed by a team of archaeologists and analytical chemists to help identify the contents of the jars1. The research demonstrates how the archaeology of smell may help us better comprehend the past and make museum visits more immersive.


Degano and her colleagues put jars and open cups filled with the decaying leftovers of ancient food within plastic bags for several days to gather some of the volatile molecules they still released. The scientists next utilized a mass spectrometer to determine the scent components in each sample. They discovered aldehydes and long-chain hydrocarbons found in beeswax; trimethylamine, which is present in dried fish; and additional aldehydes found in fruits. Degano claims that “two-thirds of the objects yielded some effects.” “It came as a pleasant surprise.”

The results will be used as part of more extensive research to re-examine the tomb’s contents and create a complete picture of non-royal burial rituals around the time Kha and Merit died, some 70 years before Tutankhamun came power.


Scent chemicals have been used to disclose significant facts about ancient Egypt before. Researchers isolated volatile chemicals from linen bandages used to wrap bodies in some of the earliest known Egyptian cemeteries between 6,300 and 5,000 years ago in 2014. The chemicals verified the existence of antibacterial embalming compounds, indicating that Egyptians experimented with mummification 1,500 years earlier than previously assumed.

According to Stephen Buckley, an archaeologist and analytical chemist at the University of York in the United Kingdom, engaged in the 2014 study, odor analysis is still an underexplored area of archaeology. “Archaeologists have overlooked volatiles because they assumed they would have vanished from objects,” he explains. “However, if you truly want to understand the ancient Egyptians, you must enter their realm of fragrance.”


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