When Egyptologists unearthed the mummy of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, at first they weren’t sure exactly whom they had found. It was yet another mystery surrounding one of Egypt’s most enigmatic pharaohs. But as it turns out, her burial site held other secrets too — namely, a small bottle that appeared to have been used to store perfume. The bottle may even hold a 3,500-year-old clue about how the powerful ruler’s life came to an end.
From the first time he saw it, German Egyptologist Michael Hoveler-Muller suspected that the bottle offered more than met the eye. It was inscribed with Hatshepsut’s name, and its opening was blocked, which made him wonder if it still held some of its ancient contents.
“I held the [bottle] in my hands for the first time when I, as a student, was involved in preparing the opening of the Egyptian Museum in Bonn,” Hoveler-Miiller says. “And to me, it was clear that this blockage was the original stopper.”
It led him to propose a tantalizing theory: If whatever was sealing the bottle was indeed the original stopper, then perhaps whatever substance the vessel had contained would still be in there too. When he shared his theory with the museum curator, however, she rejected it, insisting that the bottle was filled with mud and that the alleged stopper was nothing more than the top layer. “But to me, [it] was too light to be filled up completely with mud,” Hoveler-Miiller says.
Vanity served a social purpose
Like all Egyptologists, Hoveler-Miiller knew about the Egyptians’ extensive beauty industry. Skin care and cosmetics played such a fundamental role in their daily lives that the dead even had their makeup with them in the tomb. Archaeologists have found jars and bottles containing various beauty products and creams. Papyrus texts and tomb paintings have also yielded information about Egyptians’ use of makeup, perfumes and wigs. The extent of the daily regimen depended on the individual’s social status, but women and men at all levels of society engaged in beauty rituals, from removing wrinkles and shaving to using perfume and makeup.
However, there are many indications that vanity was not the sole reason for this emphasis on appearance. Makeup signified a person’s status and membership in a specific social class. For example, the black kohl lines that Egyptians used to emphasize their eyes and brows were drawn differently depending on whether the person was a pharaoh or a peasant. Eye makeup also served another useful purpose: averting the evil eye — a glance that people and mythological creatures could cast upon an unlucky soul to cause misfortune.
The secret in the bottle
In recent years, scientists have learned that Egyptian cosmetics also had a purely practical use. Kohl was made from galena, an opaque mineral that may have had antibacterial properties. There are many indications in papyrus texts that the ancient Egyptians commonly used cosmetics to treat skin and eye diseases.
Hoveler-Muller knew that Hatshep-sut’s unassuming little bottle might actually contain something interesting. So when he became the museum’s curator, in 2009, he set about examining it. Working with Helmut Wiedenfeld, a pharmacologist from the University of Bonn, he had the container CT scanned. Then the two scientists opened the bottle and took samples of its contents with an endoscope. Hoveler-Muller had been right all along: Not only was the original stopper intact, but Hatshepsut’s vial still held its ancient contents.
A cream of carcinogens
Chemical analyses revealed the remains of a substance that once had been liquid but had since dried out. It consisted of large amounts of palm oil and nutmeg apple oil — a very greasy combination that had the scientists asking whether Hatshepsut would really have rubbed such a heavy preparation on her face. They also discovered a number of unsaturated fatty acids, which are known to provide relief for certain skin conditions.
But it was the third group of ingredients, hydrocarbons, that led the scientists to conclude that the bottle’s contents were aimed at a skin disease. Hydrocarbons are found in coal tar, a once-common component of creams used in the treatment of rashes, eczema and psoriasis. The ancient Egyptians couldn’t have known it, but coal tar contains a particularly dangerous compound called benzo[a]pyrene, which is known to be highly carcinogenic.
Although the analyses showed the presence of a substance that may have been used to treat a skin condition, it’s unknown if Hatshepsut used the cream herself. Hoveler-Muller thinks it’s very likely, since the bottle has her name on it, but only an analysis of the pharaoh’s earthly remains will provide an answer.
It may not be so easy. Since it was found in the 1900s, Hatshepsut’s mummy has kept researchers guessing. In antiquity, Hatshepsut was moved from her original burial chamber to a humble grave, where she lay in an anonymous coffin. At first, scientists didn’t even think her mummy was that of royalty. But another mummy in the same tomb bore the name of Hatshepsut’s wet nurse, leading the archaeologists to think that the anonymous body could have belonged to the long-lost female pharaoh.
Bone cancer felled the pharaoh
Hatshepsut’s mummy wasn’t identified until 2007, when CT scans of objects bearing her name revealed a tooth in a small wooden box. By matching the tooth to a scan of the mystery mummy’s jaw, her identity was tentatively confirmed.
It’s known that she suffered, and likely died, from some sort of cancer; for Hoveler-Muller, this indicates that she slowly, if unwittingly, poisoned herself with the cream. “If Hatshepsut suffered from a chronic skin disease [that] the salve relieved, she may have exposed herself to a great risk over the years,” he says.
The study of Hatshepsut’s mummy continues, but until the results are finally made public, the question of whether the great pharaoh inadvertently caused her own death will remain just one more of the mysteries surrounding her.
The woman who would be king
In ancient Egypt, the line of succession ran from father to son, but there were a few female pharaohs. Hatshepsut was among the most successful of these, ruling for more than 21 years, from 1479 to 1458 BCE.
Initially, she ruled as regent on behalf of her young stepson after the death of her husband,Thutmose II, but within a few years she assumed the crown and set about ruling as pharaoh. She even had herself depicted as a true king with masculine traits, including the traditional headgear and beard of a pharaoh. These portrayals helped cement her position as the legitimate ruler of Egypt.
Ancient beauty secrets
The ancient Egyptians were adept at chemistry; their formulas provide the basis for the production of modern perfume and cosmetics. Experts from the French cosmetics company L’Oreal and the Centerfor Research & Restoration of the Museums of France tested small amounts of material held in
ancient Egyptian perfume bottles and cosmetics jars stored in the Louvre. Using an electron microscope and X-rays, they were able to determine the ingredients, which included galena, cerussite, laurionite, phosgenite and 7 percent fat — roughly the same percentage used in eye makeup today.