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Piece of linen cloth impregnated with resin, from the Workmen’s Village

Organic Residues


Margaret Serpico

This project began in 1989 when it was recognized that increasing numbers of pottery vessels still retained visible traces of residues, presumably ancient contents. Of this group, a sub-group of examples which appeared resinous (Figure 1) in composition predominated. These primarily have a glossy appearance, are reddish-orange in colour and with a crystalline, friable texture. To a lesser extent other residues (Figure 2), mostly dark brown and with a dry, powdery texture also occur. Both types are found on a range of pottery vessel types. In addition, a number of loose resin deposits (Figure 3) have also been discovered at the site.


Part of a pottery vessel with resinous residue
(Figure 1) Part of a pottery vessel with resinous residue

Part of a pottery vessel with darker, drier residue
(Figure 2) Part of a pottery vessel with darker, drier residue

It is fair to say that there is no area of Amarna which, in the current excavations, has not produced some resinous material, although quantities vary. As of 2005, over 400 sherds from Amarna with residue preserved on the interior surface have been catalogued, mostly with resinous contents. Loose resin samples and resin coated charcoal pieces number over 150. There are also a small number of objects, such as cloth wicks for lamps (Figure 4), which have traces of residue surviving.

Loose pieces of resin
(Figure 3) Loose pieces of resin

Cloth wick for a lamp
(Figure 4) Cloth wick for a lamp

Resin

A large number of the resin samples are found on sherds from locally manufactured Nile silt bowls (Figure 5), where the resin had clearly been burnt as incense. Some deposits include pieces of charcoal embedded in the resin. The bowls were basically of two shapes: ones with simple direct rims and those with out-turned rims frequently shown in New Kingdom reliefs as incense bowls, such as this example from the tomb of Mery-ra at Amarna (Figure 6). Unslipped, red-slipped and red-slipped burnished bowls in both shapes can all contain resin.

Nile silt bowl with thick coating of resin on the interior
(Figure 5) Nile silt bowl with thick coating of resin on the interior

Scene from the Tomb of Mery-ra at Amarna showing incense being burnt in shallow bowls with out-turned rims
(Figure 6) Scene from the Tomb of Mery-ra at Amarna showing incense being burnt in shallow bowls with out-turned rims

The burning of incense was a fundamental practice carried out in many ancient Egyptian ceremonies and the word sntr, translated as incense, occurs from Early Dynastic times onward. However, its botanical identity had been subject to considerable debate. In ancient texts, sntr was often juxtaposed with and both have been mentioned as products of the region called Punt, most notably for example, in the account of Hatshepsut's expedition recorded at Deir el-Bahari.
Because of this apposition of terms, some had suggested that sntr and refer to frankincense and myrrh. The trees which supply these gum-resins, within the genera of Boswellia and Commiphora, both grow in regions to the south of Egypt where Punt is likely to have been located. Based on studies of the visual characteristics of the trees represented in the Punt reliefs, 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.

Other New Kingdom texts, in particular, the Annals of Thutmosis III, mention sntr from Syria-Palestine, a region where frankincense does not occur. For some, this has been seen as evidence of early trade with Arabia, the other area famous for frankincense and myrrh. As more direct archaeological and textual evidence for settlement in Arabia during the Late Bronze Age has been lacking, this proposal has important implication for the history of Arabia .

An alternative botanical identification of sntr was suggested in 1949 by Victor Loret. By studying the geographical locations of sntr cited in the known texts and the flora of the relevant regions, he concluded that sntr was resin from the genus Pistacia (Figure 7). Several species occur within this genus, some known resin producers, others not. The species with which most people are familiar is Pistacia vera, the source of pistachio nuts. This species is not a good resin producer and is generally found too far east in Iran and Afghanistan to be relevant to discussions here. However, other resin producing Pistacia species do have geographical distributions which lie closer to Egypt and could be a potential source.

Pistacia tree  
(Figure 7) Pistacia tree

Support for a source of resin from Syria-Palestine also became evident at Amarna as resinous residues identical to those found in the locally made bowls also have been found in imported storage jars (Figure 8). These vessels are most commonly known as Canaanite amphorae (Figure 9), based on their presumed origin in Canaan although manufacturing sites are rare. The shape of these jars is somewhat similar to Egyptian made amphorae, but is sufficiently different to allow distinction in most instances. Notably, the occurrence of resin on Egyptian amphorae is extremely rare. Similarly, the presence of resin on vessel types other than bowls and amphorae is less common; usually small Egyptian manufactured jars and exceptionally a few cooking vessels, probably indicative of secondary use for resin storage.

Resinous residue on the inner surface of a Canaanite amphora sherd
(Figure 8) Resinous residue on the inner surface of a Canaanite amphora sherd

Canaanite amphora from Amarna. Scale 1:4
(Figure 9) Canaanite amphora from Amarna. Scale 1:4

In addition, the resin deposits at Amarna consistently occurred only in Canaanite amphorae made from a small number of the overall range of clays used for their manufacture. This suggested that links could be formed between clay fabric sources and commodities, a discovery which led to a more detailed study of the Canaanite amphorae as a whole (see Canaanite Amphorae Project).

Although rare, Canaanite amphorae were often inscribed in hieratic with information regarding the contents of the jars. No examples inscribed for sntr have yet been found during the current excavations, but a small number from earlier excavations were located in the Petrie Museum in London, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the British Museum.

It was also possible to locate similar bowls from Petrie's excavations at Amarna now in collections in the Petrie Museum in London, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Manchester Museum in Manchester. Although their precise provenance is not certain, Petrie did mention finding a large number of bowls with resin in the dumps just outside the Great Aten Temple.

With the permission of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the museums concerned it was possible to conduct chemical analysis of a select number of samples using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC-MS). This research was initially undertaken by Mr Raymond White of the National Gallery. The results, published in Antiquity (2000), established that every sample, including those from Canaanite amphorae inscribed sntr, consisted of resin of the genus Pistacia. Unfortunately, more precise species identification was not possible as the differences in chemical composition between the species are not sufficiently consistent to be diagnostic. It should be remembered, however, that other components, no longer detectable could have been included in the incense; nonetheless the predominance of pistacia resin as incense is beyond dispute. It was brought to Egypt in Canaanite amphorae and burned in small locally-made bowls. White suggested the source might be Pistacia atlantica (Figure 7), which occurs in Syria/Palestine and is an excellent source of resin. This species was overlooked by Loret, who believed Pistacia terebinthus to be the main source, although its resin producing capabilities have been brought into question.

SERC funding enabled a follow-up study to be conducted in 1994 by Professor Fatma Helmi of Cairo University in conjunction with the late Mr. John Evans of the University of East London. One hundred residues were examined with Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FT-IR) in order to assess general similarities of a large group of samples. While mostly resins, a small number of residues of different appearance and consistency were included. Four of the resin samples were then analysed with gas chromatography (GC). While FT-IR is a basic screening tool, nonetheless the overall similarity of the resin samples was notable and, moreover, they were distinctly different from the non-resinous residues. With the support of the GC and previous GC/MS analyses, it was concluded that all of the resin samples were consistent with pistacia resin.
More recently, a detailed study of a range of samples was undertaken by Dr. Benjamin Stern and Dr. Carl Heron (Department of Archaeological Science, University of Bradford) as part of the Canaanite Amphorae Project. The results again confirmed that all resin samples were Pistacia sp.

The occurrence of resin in Canaanite amphorae made from only a few of the known clay fabrics raised the possibility that the geographic region involved in the transport of the resin could be located. Further petrographic and chemical analysis was conducted on clay samples by Dr Laurence Smith (McDonald Institute of Archaeological Reseach, University of Cambridge) and Dr. Yuval Goren (Department of Archaeological Science, Tel Aviv University) as part of the Canaanite Amphorae Project. Through this, it has been possible to trace the sources of all of the clays back to the region extending roughly from north of the modern city of Tel Aviv up to Haifa, primarily along the coast (link to Canaanite Amphorae Project).

These results are particularly interesting when considered in conjunction with the discovery of a large cargo of Pistacia sp. resin on the Uluburun shipwreck found off the southern coast of Turkey near Uluburun. The wreck has been tentatively dated to the post-Amarna period, perhaps as late as the early 19th Dynasty. The diverse cargo on board the ship is a veritable treasure trove of goods from all around the Mediterranean region, including Mycenaean and Cypriot pottery, glass ingots, ebony boards, ivory, and a gold scarab inscribed with the name of Nefertiti. Also amongst the cargo were over 150 Canaanite amphorae filled collectively with over a ton of pistacia resin, identified by GC/MS analysis.

These findings raise the possibility that the Uluburun ship was indeed destined for Egypt. In addition, the results, taken in conjunction with the Uluburun analyses, indicate the presence of a commercial resin industry somewhere in Syria/Palestine on a scale not hitherto remotely expected. We now know that, during the New Kingdom, pistacia resin was called sntr, that it was extensively used as incense, transported from the Near East in Canaanite amphorae.

Oil/Fat

As well as visible residues of resin and beer, there are also a small number of samples which have been identified as containing lipid matter, either vegetable oil or animal fat. There are a number of possible sources of vegetable oils. Linseed for example, was grown in Egypt from very early times, and oils extracted from moringa nuts and balanos kernels might also have been used (Figure 10, 11). A number of sources were probably imported such as olive and possibly sesame, both of which were unlikely to have been grown in Egypt before the New Kingdom, if not later, and safflower which was introduced in the Middle Kingdom. Animal fats would have been available from a variety of sources such as duck, pig and cow.

Moringa tree
(Figure 10) Moringa tree

Balanos kernel from the excavations at the Workmen’s Village at Amarna
(Figure 11) Balanos kernel from the excavations at the Workmen’s Village at Amarna

Unfortunately, because of the compositional similarity of vegetable oils and animal fats it is often impossible to distinguish between these sources. As for the resins, a number of Canaanite amphorae sherds from earlier Amarna excavations, now in museum collections, have original hieratic inscriptions on them which identify the contents as oils, particularly (Figure 12), but the botanical identity of this product is not yet definite. Almost without exception there are no visible contents preserved, although through solvent extraction it has been possible to confirm the presence of lipid matter. For details on this study, please see the Canaanite Amphorae Project.

Sherds from a Canaanite amphora with a hieratic inscription listing the vessel contents: . Photograph courtesy of the Petrie Museum.
(Figure 12) Sherds from a Canaanite amphora with a hieratic inscription listing the vessel contents: . Photograph courtesy of the Petrie Museum.

Beer

In addition to the resin residues, a number of vessel contents have deposits which have been identified as beer in an independent study by Dr. Delwen Samuel (click here for publications arising from this study).

Bibliography arising from the project

  • Serpico, M. 2003. Quantifying Resin Trade in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age, in R. Laffineur (ed.), Metron. Measuring the Aegean Bronze Age. Proceedings of the 9th International Aegean Conference, Yale University 18-21 April, 2002. Annales d’archéologie égéenne de l’Université de Liège, 224-230.
  • Serpico, M., Bourriau, J., Smith, L., Goren, Y., Stern, B. and Heron, C. 2003. Commodities and Containers: A Project to Study Canaanite Amphorae Imported into Egypt during the New Kingdom, in M. Bietak (ed.), The Synchronisation of Civilisations in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Second Millennium BC II. Proceedings of the SCIEM2000 Euro-Conference, Haindorf, May 2001. š sterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien, 365-375.
  • Stern, B., Heron, C., Corr, L., Serpico, M., and Bourriau J. 2003. Compositional Variations in Aged and Heated Pistacia resin found in Late Bronze Age Canaanite Amphorae and Bowls from Amarna , Egypt, Archaeometry, 457-469.
  • Bourriau, J., Smith, L., and Serpico, M., 2001. Chapter 7: The provenance of Canaanite amphorae found at Memphis and Amarna in the New Kingdom, in A. Shortland (ed.), The social context of technological change: Egypt and the Near East 1650-1150 BC. Oxbow Books, Oxford, 113-46.
  • Serpico, Margaret and White, Raymond 2000. The Botanical Identity and Transport of Incense during the Egyptian New Kingdom, Antiquity 74 (286), 884-97.
  • Stern, B., Heron, C.P., Serpico, M. and Bourriau, J. 2000. A comparison of methods for establishing fatty acid concentration gradients across potsherds: a case study using Late Bronze Age Canaanite amphorae, Archaeometry 42 (2), 399-414.
  • Smith, L., Bourriau, J., and Serpico, M., 2000. The provenance of Late Bronze Age transport amphorae found in Egypt, Internet Archaeologist 9.
  • Serpico, Margaret, 1996 Mediterranean Resin Trade in New Kingdom Egypt, Unpublished Ph.D thesis, University College London.

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Website first posted September 2000; last updated October 2017 | enquiries concerning website: email bjk2@cam.ac.uk