King Tut: Perfume in This Life and the Next

Today's most iconic perfumes couldn't hold a scented candle to the fragrances produced during King Tut's time.

That's right, Chanel No. 5. Smell your heart out.

Scent aficionados need not worry, however. This Friday, archaeologist (and Texas A&M alum) Cheryl Ward will connect the olfactory luxuries of ancient Egyptians and today's perfumistas in a lecture called "The Scent of Empire: Perfumes and Alluring Aromas in the Time of King Tut" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

"I'm going to be talking about the search for ancient perfumes," Ward said, "and how archaeology has brought to life their recipes." Along with that, Ward's lecture will discuss in depth the importance Egyptians placed on scents, including the ingredients used in making perfumes and the precarious lengths taken by makers to secure said ingredients.

Ward, who is the director of the Center for Archaeology and Anthropology at Coastal Carolina University and a 30-year expert on the smells of Egypt's Golden Age, also hopes that the lecture will lift a curtain that exposes the similar -- and rather normal -- habits practiced by those in antiquity, thereby linking them to us.

Before Davidoff Cool Water or CK One ever existed, "smell goods" were already being dabbed on necks in ancient Egypt. Socialites and acolytes alike adorned themselves with scents and bathed in lavish oils, sometimes three times a day. Egyptian priests burned incense as part of a ritualistic dressing and feeding of the gods. Women wore cones of animal fat impregnated with fragrance to feasts, which would melt, allowing their smells to waft throughout the festive spaces. Acrobats and dancers paraded down streets in model boats festooned with scents on the holidays (all 220 of them).

The Egyptians were even buried with perfumes in the belief that the possession of aromas in their tombs would keep their skin silky and sexy in the afterlife. Tutankhamun's tomb held small jars of what are assumed to be personal perfumes.

More than just a part of the cultural landscape, added Ward, perfume was also a booming business. The method of making the perfumes, which could be turned into oils, incense or even body creams, happened through a process of first traveling to places such as India and Greece to buy plants and fruit, then pouring them into a cloth. In the same way that wine is made by squeezing the juice out of grapes, two workers pressed the cloth to strain out the sweet-smelling juices, leaving the pulpy fruits and roots behind.

"We would be surprised at the complexity used back then," said Ward. "They were truly creating a special product."

"The Scent of Empire" is one of a select number of lectures that complement the recently opened exhibition at the MFAH, "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharoahs."

"The Scent of Empire: Perfumes and Aromas in the Time of King Tut" will be held in MFAH's Law Building at 1:30 p.m. Friday For more information, contact the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 713-639-7300.

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