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. …