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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Scent Of A Pharoh






I am no expert when it comes to science. I know from observation [a scientific technique] that it has its limits when it comes to answering the "big questions" [as most scientists will acknowledge]. That said, I am usually amazed by the scope of the questions that science will take a shot at.

Consider the woman pictured at right; she was one of the few female pharaohs in Egypt's history [the picture is from a statue in her temple]; Hatshepsut ruled the Egyptian Empire for 22 years, beginning about 1479 BC, after the death of her half-brother and husband [Euuuwww; I know such arrangements weren't that uncommon in the Nile Crescent, but Euuuwww] Pharaoh Thutmose II. Hatshepsut [oh, let's call her "Hattie" for short, ok?] was only supposed to be a regent, until her stepson, Thutmose III [imagine the razzing he could have gotten on the way to school...oh, wait, he was a god-in-training...never mind...] reached adulthood [which, if memory serves me right, was, what, 14?]. But Hattie held onto the throne for over 20 years, before dying. (The fate of Thutmose 3, which sounds a little like a bad movie sequel, is not as well known as step-mom's.) For what it's worth, her reign looks like a fairly good one, including:

-mostly peaceful times [although she's believed to have led at least one military action personally],

-re-opening trade routes closed by war,

-spearheading several impressive public-works projects [including a rather spectacular tomb for herself],

-making ancient Egypt safer for transvestites [no, really. It turns out that, to make herself appear more regal to the hide-bound traditionalists of the time, she dressed in male clothing, may have worn a fake beard, and had herself pictured in statuary as male], and

-funded a trade expedition that brought, among other things, rare [and highly prized] incense plants to Egypt. It's this last one that has our attention today [Hattie last hit the headlines two years ago, when her mummy was positively identified; she was the first Egyptian royal to be so confirmed since King Tut, way back in 1922].

The bottle at left, discovered in Hatshepsut's final resting place [not that spectacular tomb that she commissioned; more on that in a minute], contains what scientists believe to be a dried-up fragrance fragment from Hattie's perfume of choice. Now the Bonn University Egyptian Museum in Germany thinks it can re-create her scent, based on the residues in the bottle, and a little educated [after all, it is Bonn University] guessing. For instance, the trading expedition that brought incense plants to Egypt was based around present-day Somalia. Combining knowledge of plants common to that region with a deconstruction of the fragrance remnant [x-rays are reportedly involved, but I don't have a clue how], pharmacologists [whom you'd think would be more useful curing the diseases that plague Humanity] believe they can make an approximation of the Royal Aroma. If they succeed, it would be the first such re-creation of a Pharaoh's scent of choice in history [Of course, either way, the whole project calls for a rousing shout of "So what?". I mean, come on; once this perfume is made, we'll never really know if it smells like Hattie's. As for marketing a re-make to the public, perfumers say you need a popular spokesperson to make a new scent work. Granted, Hattie was powerful, and likely enlightened, by the standards of her time. But, and let's be honest here, could she move more product than, say, Britney Spears?]

Hatshepsut [pictured at right in her "male" persona; the object at the base of her chin is a stylized beard] fared badly in her legacy's treatment by the Pharaohs who followed; many of her statues were destroyed, her reputation in history papyrusus was minimized [same thing happened in the Catholic Church to Pope Joan, and in the US Government to J. Edgar Hoover], and her mummy ended up in the Egyptian equivalent of an unmarked grave, with only the remains of a long-time family retainer [believed to be Hattie's wet-nurse, to show how long she'd been a family retainer] for company. In recent years, though, what with her re-discovery in that dark, dank grave, as well as this new project, Hatshepsut is in the middle of a new re-evaluation, and restoration. Fake beard and all.
- Mike Riley





















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