Corpus delicti? Hatshepsut's tiny flask of lotion contained a cancer-causing tar residue. credit: Barbara Frommann/University of Bonn
Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt's greatest female pharaoh, might have moisturized herself to death, according to controversial new research into the dried up contents of a cosmetic vial.
Researchers at the University of Bonn, Germany, found a highly carcinogenic substance in a flask of lotion housed at the University's Egyptian Museum.
The vessel, which featured an inscription saying it belonged to Hatshepsut, was long believed to have held perfume.
"After two years of research, it is now clear that the flacon was a kind of skin care lotion or even medication for a monarch suffering from eczema," the University of Bonn said in a statement.
The skin lotion's ingredients included large amounts of palm and nutmeg oil, polyunsaturated fats that can relieve certain skin diseases, and benzopyrene, an aromatic and highly carcinogenic hydrocarbon.
"Benzopyrene is one of the most dangerous substances we know," said pharmacologist Helmut Wiedenfeld.
Banned in today's cosmetics, the cancer-causing tar residue can be found in burnt substances and foods such barbecue, coffee, cigarette smoke, and coal tar.
"We have known for a long time that Hatshepsut had cancer and maybe even died from it," said Michael Höveler-Müller, the collection's curator.
"We may now know the actual cause," he said.
He added that cases of inflammatory skin diseases that tend to be genetic are known in Hatshepsut's family.
"If you imagine that the queen had a chronic skin disease and that she found short-term improvement from the salve, she may have exposed herself to a great risk over the years," said Wiedenfeld.
Undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary women in recorded history, Hatshepsut was the daughter of Pharaoh Tuthmosis I and wife of Tuthmosis II, her half-brother.
When her husband-brother died, she became regent for the boy-king Tuthmosis III, the child of Tuthmosis II and a concubine.
But hieroglyphic carvings suggest that Hatshepsut did not put up with that state of affairs for long: Wearing the royal headdress and a false beard, she proclaimed herself pharaoh.
She reigned from 1473 to 1458 B.C. as the fifth pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, whose later members included Akhenaton and Tutankhamun.
Under her rule, Egypt enjoyed a peaceful and prosperous time. Yet after her death, the female pharaoh was scorned, her images and inscriptions mutilated and her monuments demolished by the jealous successor Tuthmosis III.
Hatshepsut's mummy was long lost, and some scholars even hypothesized that Tuthmosis III destroyed it.
But in 2007, Egyptian authorities announced they identified the female pharaoh's mummy in KV60A, a mummified female body found by Howard Carter in 1903 as he entered tomb KV60.
The mummy showed an overweight woman just over 5 feet tall, bald in front but with long hair in back, who died at about 50.
It appeared that the powerful woman who challenged ancient Egypt's tradition of male supremacy, experienced poor health, at least in the last part of her life.
Obese, plagued with decayed teeth, the mummy also suffered from cancer, as a metastatic deposit in the pelvic bone revealed.
However, other experts are not convinced that Hatshepsut poisoned herself to death while trying to soothe her itchy skin.
"The finding of the substance in an oil she used is not the same as to autopsy the body and find traces of the same substance poisoning in the bone marrow," said Paula Veiga, a researcher in Egyptology.
It is not even certain that skin disease affected Hatshepsut and members of her family.
Although Hatshepsut's mummy appeared to have a rather disgusting skin disease on the face and neck, researchers were not able to establish beyond a doubt that it was a dermatosis.
Indeed, certain resins used in the mummification process could have been responsible for the eruptions found on the skins of Hatshepsut, as well as on her father Thutmose I, her half-brother and husband Thutmose II, and Amenhotep II, Thutmose I's grandson.
Other experts on the Facebook group Forensic Egyptology are skeptical about the flask. X-rays would show that the vessel is built of two parts, which "has never appeared so far in ancient Egyptian ceramics," said Veiga.
"So it could be a forgery," she added.