Artifacts From Egyptian Tomb Still Smell 3,400 Years Later

Thanks to science, museums with ancient artifacts could someday come with immersive smells. Researchers determined that vessels from an Egyptian tomb contain beeswax, fruit, dried fish, and maybe even beer. And they did so without even opening the amphorae (storage jars). Curators at the Museo Egizio (Egyptian Museum) in Turin, Italy, noticed odors in the display cases for years. Now they know the source of those smells.

Amphora from the tomb of Kha and Merit, some of which were analyzed by smell to determine their contents
Museo Egizio

As reported by Boing Boing, analytical chemists and archaeologists teamed up for this project. They placed a bag around a selection of sealed and unsealed vessels. After a few days, they analyzed the air inside each bag and identified chemicals associated with certain smells. And they did so on-site, without risking the transportation of any artifacts.

The peer-reviewed Journal of Archaeological Science published the article. Mass spectrometry, the technique used, can also analyze human breath for certain diseases and cancers. Something dogs and other animals with an excellent sense of smell are capable of.

The artifacts are from the tomb of wealthy Egyptians named Kha and Merit. Excavated in 1906, it is the most complete non-royal burial site unearthed. It is remarkable that the vessels have remained unopened for over 100 years since their discovery. And this new method means archeologists and curators alike don’t need to disturb artifacts to determine their contents.

Cosmetic box and vessels from the tomb of Kha and Merit
Museo Egizio

Kha and Merit’s tomb artifacts included food, much of which is well-preserved and on display at the museum. This includes loaves of bread as well as baskets and bowls of fruit, meat, spices, and even fat. The tomb also included well-preserved furniture and clothing. The mummified remains of Kha and Merit are still wrapped in their linens. The museum uses technology like x-rays and CT scans to learn about them.

Baskets with preserved cumin seeds and juniper berries, from the tomb of Kha and Merit
Museo Egizio

The discovery of smells coming from ancient Egyptian jars could lead to more immersive museum exhibits. Here’s hoping that’s limited to incense, food, and cosmetics and not anything to do with mummification.

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