The Botanical Identity and Transport of Incense during the Egyptian New Kingdom

By Serpico, Margaret; White, Raymond | Antiquity, December 2000 | Go to article overview

The Botanical Identity and Transport of Incense during the Egyptian New Kingdom


Serpico, Margaret, White, Raymond, Antiquity


The burning of incense was a fundamental part of many ancient Egyptian ceremonies. Textual evidence indicates that the word sntr, translated as incense, was known from Early Dynastic times (2920-2575 BC) onward. However, the botanical identity of sntr is still uncertain (Baum 1994). Resolution of this issue is of particular interest because indigenous sources of aromatic resins are virtually absent in Egypt, making incense a valuable imported commodity. In the past, attention focused on botanical and archaeological evidence for sntr, but these studies have failed to provide an indisputable identification. Fortunately, the discovery of resin preserved on pottery vessels at the New Kingdom site of Amarna in Middle Egypt has enabled a multidisciplinary approach to the problem, incorporating not only botanical and archaeological research but also chemical analysis of the resin itself.

Historical and botanical overview

In ancient texts, sntr is often juxtaposed with [sup.c]ntyw, leading to the traditional assumption that these words refer to trees of frankincense and myrrh. Due largely to later biblical and classical references, these gum-resins are most familiar as products of Arabia. However, according to earlier ancient Egyptian texts, [sup.c]ntyw and sntr were obtained from a location known as Punt. Although the precise location of Punt is debated, Kitchen (1993: 608) proposed the region stretching from the eastern Sudan to the northern and northwestern sides of the Ethiopian highlands (FIGURE 1), an area where frankincense, and to a lesser extent, myrrh, still grows today (Groom 1981). Historically, [sup.c]ntyw is perhaps more often translated as myrrh (Commiphora spp.), leaving the identity of sntr as frankincense (Boswellia spp.) more or less by process of elimination.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

New Kingdom texts mention large quantities of sntr from Syria/Palestine, yet frankincense does not occur in this region and the only species of Commiphora present, C. gileadensis, grows only to a very limited extent. Because of this, some have interpreted these texts as very early evidence of an overland trade route between Arabia and the Near East. Such a connection would clearly have important implications for the history of Arabia (e.g. Saleh 1973; Parr 1993; Bawden 1992),

An alternative botanical identification of sntr was suggested by Victor Loret (1949). By studying the geographical locations of sntr cited in the texts and the relevant flora, he concluded that sntr was resin from the genus Pistacia. This genus is perhaps less familiar to many, but one species still in commercial use today is Pistacia vera, the source of pistachio nuts. Although P. vera, found in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not recognized as a viable source of resin, several other species occur closer to Egypt and do produce resin. For sntr from Punt, Loret suggested Pistacia falcata, which grows in Somalia and Eritrea, as the source. For Syro/Palestinian sntr, he proposed Pistacia terebinthus. Even within Egypt, one species, Pistacia khinjuk, is found, but occurs rarely and exclusively in the eastern desert around Luxor. This scarcity, Loret suggested, was reflected in the relatively fear accounts of locally obtained sntr.

The Uluburun resin cargo

Although Loret's theory was not widely adopted, possible support for it came to light in 1984 with the discovery of an ancient shipwreck off the southern coast of Turkey near Uluburun (FIGURE 2) (Pulak 1997 and bibliography therein). The diverse cargo on board reflects an impressive collection of exotic goods from the surrounding Mediterranean region, including a gold scarab inscribed with the name of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti. Based on study of these artefacts, the ship has been dated to the post-Amarna period and dendrochronological examination of wood samples by Kuniholm suggests that it sank sometime after 1306 BC (Pulak 1997: 257). Also amongst the cargo were at least 149 Canaanite amphorae filled collectively with over a ton of resin.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Botanical Identity and Transport of Incense during the Egyptian New Kingdom
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.