Ramses VI faced a smelly challenge when he became Egypt’s king in 1145 B.C. The new pharaoh’s first job was to rid the land of the stench of fish & birds, denizens of the Nile Delta’s fetid swamps.
That, at any rate, was the instruction in a hymn written to Ramses VI upon his ascension to the throne. Some smells, it seems, were considered far worse than others in the land of the pharaohs.
Surviving written accounts indicate that, perhaps unsurprisingly, residents of ancient Egyptian cities encountered a wide array of nice & nasty odors. Depending on the neighborhood, citizens inhaled smells of sweat, disease, cooking meat, incense, trees & flowers. Egypt’s hot weather heightened demand for perfumed oils & ointments that cloaked bodies in pleasant smells.
“The written sources demonstrate that ancient Egyptians lived in a rich olfactory world,” says Egyptologist Dora Goldsmith of Freie Universität Berlin. A full grasp of ancient Egyptian culture requires a comprehensive examination of how pharaohs and their subjects made sense of their lives through smell, she contends. No such study has been conducted.
Archaeologists have traditionally studied visible objects. Investigations have reconstructed what ...buildings looked like based on excavated remains & determined how people lived by analyzing their tools, personal ornaments & other tangible finds.
Rare projects have re-created what people may have heard thousands of years ago at sites such as Stonehenge (SN: 8/31/20). Piecing together, much less re-creating, the olfactory landscapes, or smellscapes, of long-ago places has attracted even less scholarly curiosity. Ancient cities in Egypt & elsewhere have been presented as “colorful & monumental, but odorless & sterile,” Goldsmith says.
Changes are in the air, though. Some archaeologists are sniffing out odor molecules from artifacts found at dig sites & held in museums. Others are poring over ancient texts for references to perfume recipes, & have even cooked up a scent much like one presumably favored by Cleopatra. In studying & reviving scents of the past, these researchers aim to understand how ancient people experienced, & interpreted, their worlds through smell.
A growing array of biomolecular techniques is enabling the identification of molecules from ancient aromatic substances preserved in cooking pots & other containers, in debris from city garbage pits, in tartar caked on human teeth & even in mummified remains.
Take the humble incense burner, for instance. Finding an ancient incense burner indicates only that a substance of some kind was burned. Unraveling the molecular makeup of residue clinging to such a find “can determine what exactly was burned & reconstruct whether it was the scent of frankincense, myrrh, scented woods or blends of different aromatics,” says archaeologist Barbara Huber.
That sort of detective work is exactly what Huber, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, & her colleagues did in research on the walled oasis settlement of Tayma in what’s now Saudi Arabia.
Researchers generally assume that Tayma was a pit stop on an ancient network of trade routes, known as the Incense Route, that carried frankincense & myrrh from southern Arabia to Mediterranean destinations around 2,300 to 1,900 years ago. Frankincense & myrrh are both spicy-smelling resins extracted from shrubs & trees that grow on the Arabian Peninsula & in northeastern Africa & India. But Tayma was more than just a refueling oasis for trade caravans.
The desert outpost’s residents purchased aromatic plants for their own uses during much of the settlement’s history, a team led by Huber found. Chemical & molecular analyses of charred resins identified frankincense in cube-shaped incense burners previously unearthed in Tayma’s residential quarter, myrrh in cone-shaped incense burners that had been placed in graves outside the town wall, & an aromatic substance from Mediterranean mastic trees in small goblets used as incense burners in a large public building.
Fragrances of various kinds that must have had special meanings permeated a range of daily activities at ancient Tayma, Huber’s group reported in 2018 in Munich at the 11th International Conference on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East.
In a more recent study, published March 28 in Nature Human Behavior, Huber & her colleagues outlined ways to detect chemical & genetic traces of ancient scents.
Other researchers have gone searching for molecular scent clues in previously excavated pottery. Analytical chemist Jacopo La Nasa of the University of Pisa in Italy & his colleagues used a portable version of a mass spectrometer to study 46 vessels, jars, cups & lumps of organic material.
These artifacts were found more than a century ago in the underground tomb of Kha & his wife Merit, prominent nonroyals who lived during Egypt’s 18th dynasty from about 1450 B.C. to 1400 B.C. The spectrometer can detect the signature chemical makeup of invisible gases emitted during the decay of different fragrant plants & other substances that had been placed inside vessels.
Analyses of residue from inside seven open vessels & of one lump of unidentified organic material detected oil or fat, beeswax or both, the scientists report in the May Journal of Archaeological Science. One open vessel yielded possible chemical markers of dried fish & of a possible aromatic resin that could not be specified. The remaining containers were sealed & had to stay that way due to museum policy. Measurements taken in the necks of those vessels also picked up signs of oils or fats & beeswax in some cases. Evidence of a barley flour appeared in one vessel’s neck.
Museum-based studies such as La Nasa’s have great potential to unlock ancient scents. But that’s true only if researchers can open sealed vessels &, with a bit of luck, find enough surviving chemical components of whatever was inside to identify the substance, Goldsmith says.
Luck did not favor La Nasa’s group, she says. “Their analyses did not detect any [specific] scents.”
Oils, fats & beeswax in the seven open vessels could only have constituted neutral-smelling base ingredients for ancient Egyptian perfumes & ointments, Goldsmith says. Starting with mixtures of those substances, Egyptian perfume makers added a host of fragrant ingredients that included myrrh, resin & bark from styrax & pine trees, juniper berries, frankincense & nut grass. The heating of these concoctions produced strongly scented ointments.
Re-creating Cleopatra’s perfume
A tradition of fragrant remedies & perfumes began as the first Egyptian royal dynasties assumed power around 5,100 years ago, Goldsmith’s research suggests. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic & cursive documents describe recipes for several perfumes. But precise ingredients & preparation methods remain unknown.
That didn’t stop Goldsmith & historian of Greco-Roman philosophy & science Sean Coughlin of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague from trying to re-create a celebrated Egyptian fragrance known as the Mendesian perfume. Cleopatra, a perfume devotee during her reign as queen from 51 B.C. to 30 B.C., may have doused herself with this scented potion. The perfume took its name from the city where it was made, Mendes.
Excavations conducted since 2009 at Thmouis, a city founded as an extension of Mendes, have uncovered the roughly 2,300-year-old remains of what was probably a fragrance factory, including kilns & clay perfume containers. Archaeologist Robert Littman of the University of Hawaii at Manoa & anthropological archaeologist Jay Silverstein of the University of Tyumen in Russia, who direct the Thmouis dig, asked Goldsmith & Coughlin to try to crack the Mendesian perfume code by consulting ancient writings.
After experimenting with ingredients that included desert date oil, myrrh, cinnamon & pine resin, Goldsmith & Coughlin produced a scent that they suspect approximates what Cleopatra probably wore. It’s a strong but pleasant, long-lasting blend of spiciness & sweetness, they say.
Ingredients of a re-creation of an ancient fragrance called the Mendesian perfume consist of pine resin, cinnamon cassia, true cinnamon, myrrh & moringa oil. Cleopatra herself may have worn the ancient scent. A description of the Thmouis discoveries & efforts to revive the Mendesian scent — dubbed Eau de Cleopatra by the researchers — appeared in the Sept. 2021 Near Eastern Archaeology.
Goldsmith has re-created several more ancient Egyptian perfumes from written recipes for fragrances that were used in everyday life, for temple rituals & in the mummification process.
Odor molecules unearthed in archaeological digs & reconstituted perfumes from the past, however, offer only a partial view of the scents of thousands of years ago. To get a more complete picture of an ancient city’s or town’s range of smells — its smellscape — some archaeologists are combing ancient written texts for references to smell.
That’s what Goldsmith did to come up with what she thinks is a smellscape typical of ancient Egyptian cities. Here’s what a “smellwalk” through one of these cities would entail, she says.
In the royal palace, for instance, the perfumed smell of rulers & their family members would have overpowered that of court officials & servants. That would perhaps have denoted special ties to the gods among those in charge, Goldsmith wrote in a chapter of The Routledge Handbook of the Senses in the Ancient Near East, published in September of 2021.
In temples, priests anointed images of gods with what was called the 10 sacred oils. Though their ingredients are mostly unknown, each substance apparently had its own pleasing scent & ritual function. Temples mixed smells of perfumes, flowers & incense with roasted meat. Written sources describe the smell of fatty meat being grilled as especially pleasing & a sign of peace as well as authority over enemies.
In other parts of an ancient Egyptian city, Goldsmith says, scribal students lived in a special building where they learned Egyptian script. Achieving such knowledge required total devotion & the avoidance of perfume or other pleasant scents. One ancient source described aspiring scribes as “stinking bulls.” That name speaks, & reeks, for itself.
Meanwhile, in workshops, sandal-makers mixing tan to soften hides & smiths making metal weapons at the mouths of furnaces probably developed their own distinctive, foul smells, Goldsmith says.
Stinky odors get far fewer mentions than sweet aromas in many of the written accounts from ancient Egypt that Goldsmith reviewed. Goats & other domestic animals, butchered carcasses, open latrines & garbage in the streets, for example, get no mention in these surviving texts.
An awareness that such texts may represent only an elite perspective - & thus not reveal the entire smellscape of the time or how it was perceived by everyday folks - is crucial when compiling the scents of ancient history, Goldsmith says.
Once researchers come up with a reasonable reconstruction of an ancient city’s smellscape, the challenge shifts to figuring out how the ancients interpreted those smells.
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People in modern settings probably perceive the same smells as nice or nasty as folks in ancient Egypt or other past societies did, says psychologist Asifa Majid of the University of Oxford. In line with that possibility, members of nine non-Western cultures, including hunter-gatherers in Thailand & farming villagers in highland Ecuador, closely agreed with Western city dwellers when ranking the pleasantness of 10 odors, Majid & her colleagues report April 4 in Current Biology.
Smells of vanilla, citrus & floral sweetness — dispensed by pen-sized devices — got high marks. Odors of rancid oiliness & a fermented scent like that of ripe cheese or human sweat evoked frequent “yech” responses.
A collective “yech” in response to the Nile Delta’s moist, stinky emissions may have inspired the hymn that instructed Ramses VI to rid the land of its swampy fish & fowl smell. But Goldsmith argues that the hymn’s meaning is deeper & hinges on what ancient Egyptians saw as a conflict between sweet & evil smells.
In a 2019 review of texts written during the reigns of various ancient Egyptian kings, Goldsmith was struck by frequent references to this odiferous opposition. She concluded that ancient Egyptians’ largely unexplored views about what exemplified good & bad smells could provide insights into their world view. Researchers have long noted that concepts known as isfet & ma’at helped ancient Egyptians determine what was good or bad in the world. Isfet referred to a natural state of chaos & evil. Ma’at denoted a world of order & justice.
Signature odors were associated with isfet & ma’at, Goldsmith proposed in a chapter in Sounding Sensory Profiles in the Ancient Near East. In Nile societies, the smelly fish & birds best represented isfet’s nasal assault. Fish, in particular, signified not only stench but also the danger of unfamiliar places outside the pharaoh’s command, she concludes. Meanwhile, the ancient documents equated scented ointments & perfumes with the ma’at of civilized, pharaoh-ruled cities, she says.
Thus, an Egyptian pharaoh’s first duty was to erase the social & physical stink of isfet & institute the sweet smell of ma’at, Goldsmith contends. In his welcoming hymn, Ramses VI got a friendly reminder to make Egypt politically strong & olfactorily fresh.
Explicit beliefs connecting isfet with evil smells & ma’at with sweet smells throughout ancient Egyptian history haven’t yet been established but deserve closer scrutiny, says UCLA Egyptologist Robyn Price.
Price thinks that, rather than being fixed, values that were applied to scents fluctuated over time. For instance, some ancient texts describe the “marsh,” where fish & fowl flourished, as a place of divine creation, she says. And documents from southern Egypt often spoke negatively about northern Egyptians, perhaps influencing claims that northern marshes stunk of isfet during periods when the two regions were under separate rule.
So, even if the ancients tagged the same odors as pleasurable or offensive as people do today, culture & context probably profoundly shaped responses to those smells.
Working-class Romans living in Pompeii around 2,000 years ago — before Mount Vesuvius’ catastrophic eruption in A.D. 79 — provide one example. Archaeological evidence & written sources indicate that patrons of small taverns throughout the city were bombarded with strong smells, says archaeologist Erica Rowan of Royal Holloway, University of London. Diners standing or sitting in small rooms & at outdoor counters whiffed smoky, greasy food being cooked, body odors of other customers who had been toiling all day & pungent aromas wafting out of nearby latrines.
The smells & noises that filled Pompeii’s taverns provided a familiar & comforting experience for everyday Romans, who made these establishments successful, Rowan suspects. Excavations have uncovered 158 of these informal eating & drinking spots throughout Pompeii.
Roman cities generally smelled of human waste, decaying animal carcasses, garbage, smoke, incense, cooked meat & boiled cabbage, Classical historian Neville Morley of the University of Exeter in England wrote in 2014 in a chapter of Smell & the Ancient Senses. That potent mix “must have been the smell of home to its inhabitants & perhaps even the smell of civilization,” he concluded.
Ramses VI undoubtedly regarded the perfumed world of his palace as the epitome of civilized life. But at the end of a long day, Egyptian sandal-makers & smiths, like Pompeii’s working stiffs, may well have smelled home as the air of city streets filled their nostrils.
A. Arshamian et al. The perception of odor pleasantness is shared across cultures. Current Biology. Published April 4, 2022.
D. Goldsmith. Smellscapes in ancient Egypt. In K. Neumann & A. Thomason, eds., The Routledge Handbook of the Senses in the Ancient Near East. New York, September 2021.
D. Goldsmith. Fish, fowl & stench in ancient Egypt. In A. Schellenberg & T. Krüger, eds., Sounding Sensory Profiles in the Ancient Near East. SBL Press, 2019.
B. Huber et al. How to use modern science to reconstruct ancient scents. Nature Human Behavior. Published March 28, 2022.
B. Huber et al. An archaeology of odors: Chemical evidence of ancient aromatics at the oasis of Tayma, NW Arabia. 11th International Conference on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East. Munich, April 3–7, 2018.
R.J. Littman et al. Eau de Cleopatra: Mendesian perfume & Tell Timai. Near Eastern Archaeology. Vol. 84, September 2021.
N. Morley. Urban smells & Roman noses. In M. Bradley, ed., Smell & the Ancient Senses. New York, December 2014.
J. La Nasa et al. Archaeology of the invisible: The scent of Kha & Merit. Journal of Archaeological Science. Vol. 141, May 2022.
E. Rowan. The sensory experiences of food consumption. In R. Skeates & J. Day, eds., The Routledge Handbook of Sensory Archaeology. New York, November 2019.