Deadly ancient Egyptian medication – the dark secret of Queen Hatshepsut’s flacon

For many years the flacon of Queen Hatshepsut lay unexplored, believed to be a perfume flask, until Michael Höveler-Müller, head of the permanent collection at the Egyptian Museum at the University of Bonn, and Dr Helmut Weidenfeld from the university’s pharmacology unit, examined it more closely.

It turns out that the Queen suffered from eczema and the flacon held her skin medication – but it also held a strongly carcinogenic substance that may have killed her. The flacon underwent a CAT scan and it was observed to be sealed intact, and also to hold a residue of dried up liquid. Using an endoscope the pair analysed the old substances for their ingredients – which turned out to be palm oil and nutmeg apple oil. The clue as to what this overly greasy compound was for lay in the unsaturated fatty acids, which provide relief for people with skin conditions – and it was known that the Queen’s family did suffer from hereditary skin conditions. The third set of ingredients however contained asphalt and creosote, the latter still being used to this day to treat skin conditions, but banned from cosmetics because it is carcinogenic.

In particular, the scientists discovered benzo(a)pyrene, which is what makes cigarette smoke carcinogenic. The scientists have known for a long time that Queen Hatshepsut died from cancer, and now they know how it may have been caused.

Source: University of Bonn

August 2011

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