Monday, April 11, 2022

The Long Reach of Odors

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Archeology, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler 

Who would have thought that odors would have lingered after 3,400 years "from the tomb of a wealthy ancient Egyptian couple, Kha and Merit, found near Luxor in 1906?"  Kha means "a chief of works,"  i.e., an architect. 
The research and findings on these odors are reported by Colin Baras in the journal Nature (see below for link) where the research was published. The work is possible because of technology and chemists. Interestingly, this is not the first time the technique has been used but the technique of using gases (volatiles), "according to Stephen Buckley, an archaeologist and analytical chemist, 'have been ignored by archeologists because of an assumption they would have disappeared from artefacts.'"

"Unusually for the time," Baras continues, "the archaeologist who discovered the tomb resisted the temptation to unwrap the mummies or peer inside the sealed amphorae, jars and jugs there, even after they were transferred to the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy." 
So what was it that prompted the sniffing? "Ilaria Degano of the University of Pisa, Italy said that 'From talking with the curators, we knew that there were some fruity aromas in the display cases." So she "and her colleagues placed various artefacts -- including sealed jars and open cups laden with the rotten remains of ancient food --inside plastic bags for several days to collect...volatile molecules they still release." The team found that "Two-thirds of the objects gave some results." Degano also says. '"It was a very nice surprise.'" The sniffers detected whiffs "indicative of beeswax...dried fish, and (molecules) common in fruits."

These odors might one day be used in exhibits, adding "a dimension to the visitor experience at museums." On the other hand, "Cecilia Bembibre at University College" where she is currently a lecturer, remarked to Baras that, Degradation and decomposition can be a smelly business, so the scents from an artefact today do not necessarily match what Bembibre referred to as the original 'smellscape' of a tomb.

In closing, Baras quotes "Stephen Buckley, who was involved in the 2014 study said that “'if you want to understand the ancient Egyptians, you really want to go into that world of smell'”. Here is an example pointed out by Kathryn Bard of Boston University.  "Sweet-smelling incense derived from aromatic resins was essential for the ancient Egyptians. 'Incense was necessary for temple ceremonies and for some mortuary rituals. ... Because resin-producing trees didn’t grow in Egypt, this necessitated ambitious long-distance expeditions to obtain supplies.'"

Baras's report includes illustrations, a photograph of the instrument with its "nose" as close as it can be placed to where the lid of the amphorae and the jar meet, a copy of a papyrus showing Kha and Merit worshiping the god of the afterlife, more complete descriptions, access to the original paper and some links. It is also quite short. 

The technological nose knows and this reporting tells us how and why it is of importance and of interest.

No comments:

Post a Comment