The Scent of a Woman Pharaoh


The female pharaoh Hatshepsut was no Cleopatra. Hatshepsut was far more powerful. Scientists in Germany are now reconstructing one major source of her authority: perfume.

Rulers in Egypt used scents to instill awe in their subjects. Pharaohs were akin to gods, and only they were allowed to—and could afford to—dab themselves with fragrances. (Bandits raided King Tut’s tomb twice in ancient Egypt, first for perfumes, later for gold.) Cowing subjects was especially important for Hatshepsut because she ruled under dubious circumstances. She refused to yield the throne to her young stepson when he came of age (he eventually became Thutmose III). Exotic scents helped cement her status as a legitimate monarch, and she personally led expeditions to modern Eritrea to scout for redolent plants from which to make incense.

After she died in the mid-15th century B.C., attendants buried Hatshepsut with a flacon of perfume for the afterlife, a fluted clay jar five inches tall. Archaeologists discovered the flacon in the early 1900s, but the liquid inside had evaporated, and they were loath to wrench out the flacon’s stopper,still firmly in place. Only recently did Michael Höveler-Müller and colleagues at Bonn University realize they could use x-rays to study the flacon and the residue lining its inner surface.

Höveler-Müller’s team is yet to complete the perfume analysis, but he did suggest likely candidates for ingredients, including aromatic wood, flowers, fruits, and the resins and gums of aromatic trees that form incense. Once he and his colleagues nail down the ingredients and their proportions, they plan to recreate the scent for the first time in millennia. “Our research will touch new ground,” he says, “and will maybe enable us to put our noses back into a time more than 3,500 years ago.”

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Sam Kean is the author of six science books, including The Disappearing Spoon and The Icepick Surgeon.


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