Direkt zum Inhalt
Then, scientists discovered the remains of an indeterminate substance. Had they found the ancient queen’s perfume? Or did this bottle hold other surprises? A scientific investigation followed that rivaled a good mystery book.
With some treasures, their value only becomes apparent when you look very closely. The inconspicuous earthenware vessel that was part of the permanent exhibition at the Egyptian Museum in Bonn for seven years is a prime example of this. The small bottle came from the personal belongings of the powerful Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut, who reigned over her kingdom on the Nile about 1,480 years before Christ. For a long time, no one suspected what mysteries the bottle concealed inside. It was only in 2009, when Michael Höveler-Müller started as new head of the collection, that its importance began to come to light. The Egyptologist wanted to investigate what at first glance seemed to be a clog in the neck of the bottle. He speculated that it might in fact be the original clay stopper, which would mean that the bottle had remained sealed all this time. A CT scan was performed to examine the contents of the bottle and proved Höveler-Müller’s suspicions correct. Not only was the bottle completely intact, but it also even held a dried residue of a liquid.
But what kind of liquid was inside? Could it be the Egyptian queen’s perfume – a fragrance thousands of years old? Historians know that fragrances were used for new applications under the rule of Hatshepsut and were gaining greater importance. Fragrances were no longer limited to use in ritual ceremonies for the dead, but were also used for ointments, pomades and fragrances for the living. But what scent might these ancient Egyptian perfumes have had? Did they smell of frankincense, the fragrant luxury commodity for which Hatshepsut ordered dangerous expeditions into East Africa? The Queen could have used such a fragrance to underscore her power and divine status. The scientists from Bonn hoped to discover more about the historical fragrance composition of this unexpected find and reconstruct the Queen Pharaoh’s perfume after more than 3,500 years.
In the summer of 2009, it was time to take things to the next level: specialists from the Ear, Nose, and Throat Medical Clinic and Polyclinic at Bonn University removed a sample of the precious contents using an endoscopic procedure. Dr. Helmut Wiedenfeld was then called in to examine the substance. Together with his team at the Pharmaceutical Institute, the researcher examined the historical substance extensively for two years. The work required good instincts in addition to expertise, as the researchers could only guess which materials they should test for. The small amount of material to analyze presented the team with an additional challenge. Since the team only had a very small sample, the number of tests was limited. But again Dr. Wiedenfeld’s team found a solution: running a pre-analysis process, it was able to rule out certain groups of substances from the beginning – helping give it a head start on its hunt.
The results of their investigations surprised even the researchers: instead of a perfume, they found a mix of palm oil and nutmeg oil – a combination containing far too much fat to be perfume. Their search for frankincense or myrrh – fragrances of that time – also proved to be futile. Instead, they found unsaturated fatty acids that are still used today for combating skin diseases. Hydrocarbons from tar and related bitumen were also found in the mixture. Just like unsaturated fatty acids, tar is also known as an effective agent for relieving chronic skin conditions. It must be used with caution, however. Tar also contains benzo[a]pyrene, a known carcinogen, which is why tar-based medicines are today only available with a prescription. In fact, the researchers found extensive amounts of this dangerous substance.
Archaeologists and pharmacists poured over the data together and came to a joint assumption. They think that the mysterious content of the bottle was a skin care lotion or similar medication. It was already known that the Pharaoh Queen had suffered from a skin condition. The tar and unsaturated fatty acids would have helped relieve the typical symptoms of her skin disease. But since the Egyptians of this age were not especially advanced in the area of pharmaceuticals, the cream must have been imported – the Queen most likely had it brought in from the Mesopotamian region. The results were most likely fatal as Hatshepsut is known to have had cancer and likely died from it. Did the cancer stem from the dangerous contents of her lotion? Did Hatshepsut moisturize herself to death with her medication? The researchers in Bonn consider it very possible due to the carcinogenic material found in the cream. And even though they didn’t discover the perfume of a Pharaoh Queen, they still delivered another important indicator that Hatshepsut died of cancer, while also showing just how cool historical research can be.
The name perfume belies much about the origins of the fragrant commodity: the Latin phrase “per fumum” means “through smoke”. And this is exactly how the first fragrant substances were initially used, being cooked over a fire to release their fragrant properties.
About 5,000 years before Christ, Egyptians were already using smoke offerings made from resin and plant essences to honor their sun god, Ra. Fragrant oils and mixtures were also used for religious ointments and medical treatments, and later in body care as well. The Crusades and new trade routes eventually brought these essences to Europe.
Once in Europe, perfumers and alchemists developed improved methods for generating new scents. And yet, perfume remained a luxury commodity for a long time. At the court of Ludwig XV, heavy perfumes were used daily to mask bodily odors – something that cannot be said of soap and water! With the Enlightenment, new fragrances, such as the famous eau de Cologne, became the trend.
Around 1870, the first synthetic fragrance substances were being developed, which opened up new possibilities for perfumers and made perfumes affordable for the less well-to-do.
Also fashion designers discovered the world of fragrances and launched perfumes matching their collections on the market, with Coco Chanel leading the way. Her Chanel No. 5 is still one of the most well-known perfumes to this day and is considered to have paved the way for today’s close liaison between fragrance and fashion.