Ancient Egyptian jars reveal story of nurse found buried among pharaohs

Scientists analysing jars used to contain internal organs discovered details of the era’s complex mummification balms

Left, the canopic jar containing the remains of a woman named Senetnay, wet nurse to Pharaoh Amenhotep II. Right, the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. Photo: Museum August Kestner / Alamy
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­­Jars containing the mummified organs of a wet nurse who lived in Egypt 3,500 years ago have revealed new details about ancient Egyptian trade routes – and hinted at a royal nurse's “exceptional status” within the family.

Analysis of the containers used to store internal organs has given insight into the era’s complex mummification balms, research published on Thursday in the online journal Scientific Reports showed.

The canopic jars contained the mummified remains of a woman called Senetnay, a wet nurse who nurtured and breastfed then-future king Pharaoh Amenhotep II in about 1450 BC.

The research revealed embalming ingredients thought to originate in more exotic locations than previously thought and suggested the wet nurse was an important member of the young royal’s entourage.

Senetnay’s remains were found in a tomb among pharaohs and nobles in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, discovered by famed British archaeologist Howard Carter about 120 years ago.

After her death, Senetnay’s mummified organs were embalmed and stored in four canopic jars with lids in the shape of human heads to preserve her remains for the afterlife.

Two of the jars, used to store Senetnay’s lungs and liver, are now held in the Egyptian collection of the Museum August Kestner in Hannover, Germany.

The jars sit empty after the mummified organs were lost, but residue of the mummification balms have been partially preserved as thin coatings on the walls and bases of the containers and in their porous limestone.

'Most complex' balms

Ancient Egyptian mummification was practised for nearly 4,000 years. Embalming – the preservation of the body and organs of the deceased for the afterlife – was central to the process.

The mummification process involved the removal of organs including the lungs, liver, stomach and intestines, followed by embalming. The organs were often mummified themselves and stored in separate canopic jars.

To investigate how the remains were preserved so well, scientists scraped and analysed balm residues from the jars, revealing beeswax, plant oil, fats, bitumen and other resins.

Archaeological chemist Barbara Huber and her colleagues found that some of the ingredients may have come as far away as South-East Asia, suggesting that Egyptians may have had far-reaching trade routes up to a millennium earlier than previously thought.

“These are the richest, most complex balms yet identified for this early time period and they shed light on balm ingredients, for which there is limited information in Egyptian textual sources,” the research said.

“They highlight both the exceptional status of Senetnay and the myriad trade connections of the Egyptians in the second millennium BCE.

“They further illustrate the excellent preservation possible even for organic remains long removed from their original archaeological context.”

The complexity of the ingredients and the distance they travelled revealed that Senetnay must have been a valued member of the pharaoh’s family unit, Ms Huber told the website Science News.

Updated: August 31, 2023, 7:33 PM