Sensing the Fundamentals: An Examination of Scent as Integral to Ancient Egyptian Society

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Author: Robyn Sophia Price
Publication Date: 2022

PhD Dissertation, University of Los Angeles (USA)
Open Access

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Despite the senses being foundational to how we interact with our environments, archaeologists rarely consider the significance of the senses to past lives. Thus, I examine in this dissertation the extent to which a culture’s understanding of the human body experience (i.e., the senses) affects their society. I argue that sensory experience permeates every aspect of our lives (i.e., the ideological, the social, the economic, and the political), and, by focusing on sensory experience in humanistic studies, we might eliminate false dichotomies (e.g., religious/secular) and discrete categories (e.g., economic/political).

Ancient Egypt serves as a case study for how the senses are central to the ways we organize our lives. Specifically, I investigate the values attributed scent and smelling in New Kingdom Egypt (1550 BCE–1050 BCE)—considering how scented products figured in economic negotiations and across socio-political and religious spheres. After examining the visual, written, and material evidence of scent from New Kingdom Egypt, I argue that the ancient Egyptians employed scent as an organizing feature in their society, from dictating proper etiquette for celebrating holidays and expressing endearment, to praising the gods, healing bodies, and purifying spaces. Pleasant fragrances communicated one’s identity and presence, and also functioned as the manifestation of life itself. To smell was more than a physiological reaction to environmental stimuli but was a physical presence that exerted influence over individuals.

This study, furthermore, demonstrates the dangers of ignoring the senses in humanistic studies. Sensory experiences can be manipulated to control and order populations. In the ancient Egyptian context, the high ideological and social values attributed pleasant scents resulted in a foundational need among the populace for access to sweet-smelling air. In valuing the experience of pleasant scents across social contexts, the demand for these products increased beyond their earlier limited uses. High prices and an emphasis on foreign scents, however, restricted general access to the most desirable aromas. Ultimately, social hierarchies were established and maintained based on access to these products and an industry was developed to support these relationships.