The Smellscapes of Ancient Egypt
Doctoral researcher Dora Goldsmith is recreating the scents of ancient Egypt to better understand the role of smell during the reign of the pharaohs.
Jun 14, 2021
Many of us are fascinated by the history of ancient Egypt. The pyramids, the Nile, mummies, and mythology have captivated a great number of us since childhood – but few people spend very much time, if any, thinking about how Egypt smelled. Yet this niche has captured the imagination of Dora Goldsmith, who insists that ancient Egypt was a land characterized by its smells. The doctoral researcher from the Egyptological Seminar at Freie Universität Berlin has dedicated the last decade to investigating the importance of the sense of smell in ancient Egyptian society and culture. Egypt, explains Goldsmith, was the center of perfume-making in the ancient world, with exclusive fragrances manufactured according to sacred and secret recipes becoming leading exports. But what’s even more surprising to most laypeople is that scents and stenches played a significant role in the everyday lives of the ancient Egyptians as well.
There was a strong olfactory hierarchy in ancient Egypt: The king smelled the best, as he was the only person in this world who had a divine scent referred to as “sTi nTr” in Egyptian (pronounced “setchy netcher”). The fishermen were considered the worst-smelling inhabitants of the ancient Egyptian world, as they spent the entire day working in the swamps. In fact, the hieroglyph for “fish” is often associated with “stench.”
Even though scents were considered incredibly important in pharaonic Egypt, research on them has so far fallen by the wayside, as Goldsmith explains. “The idea of researching areas related to the senses – especially smells – was considered somewhat unprofessional for quite a long time. This taboo is only just beginning to very slowly dissipate.” It’s precisely this factor that drew 34-year-old Goldsmith to the subject initially. “I didn’t want to just tap into new aspects of an old topic, but research something truly groundbreaking.”
From Term Paper to Top International Researcher
Goldsmith started off on her journey by writing an essay about smell in ancient Egypt, which later became the topic of her master’s thesis. She was then encouraged by her thesis supervisors to begin doctoral research on the subject. “I hadn’t planned for things to work out like this, but it’s become my life’s work,” she says.
Since then, she has been holding workshops on the sense of smell in ancient Egypt, become an in-demand expert on ancient Egyptian smells across the globe, and hit the headlines with her reconstruction of “Cleopatra’s perfume.”
In reality, her scent recreations are a mere means to an end. “I practice experimental archaeology in order to better understand historical sources,” says Goldsmith. “Smells played a significant role in every aspect of Egyptian life, and we see this reflected in the written sources.” However, she says that the real difficulty lies in understanding what the writer meant if they described something as “good,” “bad,” or “divine.”
An Extensive Library of Scents
This is why Goldsmith is carrying out semantic field research focusing on different ancient Egyptian words relevant to the sense of smell. She collects, records, analyzes, and translates ancient Egyptian texts that include these words. This work informs her hypotheses on the role of smells in ancient Egyptian society. Her compendium has since grown to a thousand texts. “My interpretation depends greatly on the context. A ‘divine scent,’ for example, can mean a perfume used in a temple. But it can also mean frankincense, lotus, or the scent of ointments that were used to embalm mummies,” she explains.
Goldsmith faces another challenge in matching ancient Egyptian ingredients to their modern botanical names. This is why she has been building up a comprehensive library of scents throughout her years of research. It is made up of hundreds of tiny glass bottles containing petals, leaves, seeds, pieces of wood, resins, waxes, and oils from the same regions of origin from which the Egyptians would have procured them.
Looking Good – or Smelling Good?
Recognizing and contextualizing smells is essential to Goldsmith’s research. She frequently asks renowned museums with ancient Egyptian collections if she can sniff organic objects like perfumes and wooden sarcophagi. She’s even had the chance to find out what different mummies smell through her research: “Other researchers tend to describe the discoloration of mummies in painstaking detail, but their smell also provides us with plenty of information,” she says. “For example, mummies of kings and important officials from the New Kingdom – the period lasting from 1550 to 1070 BCE – smell good today because they were embalmed using the best methods. In the Greek-Roman period, emphasis was on the visual appearance of mummies, rather than the fragrant substances with which they were embalmed, meaning that mummies from this period stink.”
A Preference for Powerful Fragrances
Goldsmith is describing the importance of smells in all areas of ancient Egyptian society for the first time through her doctoral research. In doing so, she is constantly coming across surprising facts. For example, the Egyptians didn’t distinguish between aromatic substances, medicinal extracts, and foodstuffs. They liked to chew on the compound incense kyphi, used celery stalks in flower bouquets, and scented mummies with cloves of garlic and onion rings. Their love of the almost overpowering medicinal smell of oil made from camphor wood also surprised Goldsmith.
More than anything else, she’s fascinated by the omnipresence of smells in the everyday life of the ancient Egyptians: “Temples, private homes, the streets, workshops, the necropolis – each of these places had a very characteristic smell. People even used several strong perfumes at once, with men and women alike wearing scented wigs, censing their clothes with incense and anointing their bodies. They were always surrounded by intense fragrances wherever they went.”
This text originally appeared in German on April 24, 2021, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität Berlin.