Characterization of archaeological frankincense by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry

J Chromatogr A. 2004 Jan 16;1023(2):277-85. doi: 10.1016/j.chroma.2003.10.016.


A simple gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) method has been developed for the characterization of frankincense in archaeological samples. After trimethylsilylation of the methanolic extract, 15 triterpenoids have been found among the chemical constituents of commercial olibanum (alpha-boswellic acid, 3-O-acetyl-alpha-boswellic acid, beta-boswellic acid, 3-O-acetyl-beta-boswellic acid, alpha-amyrin, beta-amyrin, lupeol, 3-epi-beta-amyrin, 3-epi-beta-amyrin, 3-epi-lupeol, alpha-amyrenone, beta-amyrenone, lupenone, 3alpha-hydroxy-lup-20(29)-en-24-oic acid and 3-O-acetyl-hydroxy-lup-20(29)-en-24-oic acid). These compounds have been unequivocally identified by retention time and mass spectral comparison with pure standards previously isolated, for the most part, in our laboratory. Within these triterpenes, acid ones, the corresponding O-acetates, and their products of degradation were found to be characteristic of frankincense (Boswellia resin). The presence of these unusual triterpenic compounds in an archaeological resinous sample, recovered during excavations from Dahshour site (Egypt, XIIth Dynasty), enabled us to identify unambiguously frankincense resin among several other materials. Additional chromatographic peaks of this sample were assigned to broad chemical classes using retention time and mass spectra features.

MeSH terms

  • Boswellia / chemistry*
  • Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry / methods*
  • Reference Standards