Ancient Cheese Found Preserved In Egyptian Tomb

Hidden by the sands of time in a cracked clay jar, a dried and chalky white substance wrapped in a bit of canvas waited to be discovered. Finally, the jar was unearthed by archaeologists who were exploring the rediscovered tomb of Ptahmes near Cairo. A chemical analysis of the substance was requested.

The white material was identified as cheese and at over three thousand years old, it is one of the oldest pieces of solid cheese found belonging to the ancient world. As with many discoveries from a time long ago, a romanticized notion has spread that the recently found cheese is cursed.

The Tomb of Ptahmes

Ptahmes lived during the 13th century B.C. and was the mayor of Memphis, a now-defunct city that exists only as ruins. As a high-ranking official in Egypt, Ptahmes would have had a fairly lavish burial site.

First discovered in 1885 at the Saqqara necropolis of the city of Memphis near Cairo in Egypt, the location of the tomb of Ptahmes was lost after it had been looted. It is likely that the site of the tomb was not recorded in order to prevent other looters from finding it. The rediscovery of the tomb in 2010 thrilled the archaeological community.

During excavations in 2013 and 2014, archaeologists discovered some broken clay jars, and inside one of them was a white substance wrapped in a piece of canvas cloth. It was common for bits of preserved food to be stored along with the mummy when entombing an important figure so that the spirit of the deceased would have sustenance during their journey to the afterlife. It seemed likely to archaeologists that based on the location within the tomb and the manner in which it had been stored that the white substance may have been some type of food. A chemical analysis was requested to determine just what kind of food the substance may have been.

Pillars from the tomb of Ptahmes. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Chemical Analysis of the Discovered Substance

A proteomic analysis was carried out on the unknown chalky white substance found in the tomb.

  • Definition of the proteome: The proteome is all of the proteins that are produced by a cell, tissue, or organism. Therefore, a proteomic analysis is the detailed examination of the proteins (or peptides) found in a sample.

Because the unknown substance had been dehydrated and then rehydrated by rain and Nile floodwaters, as well as exposed to alkaline (basic) conditions, the lipid content of the substance was destroyed and techniques that differed from the usual ones employed needed to be used. A sample of the substance was dissolved and the proteins within the sample were extracted. Analysis of the proteins and peptides from the sample showed that they were dairy proteins and had come from the milk of cows and either sheep or goats. The substance was identified as cheese and was found to be approximately three thousand and two hundred years old.

A different sample of ancient cheese was found in China that was almost four thousand years old, several hundred years older than the cheese from the tomb in Egypt, but the Chinese cheese was kefir, a form of fermented milk that remains a liquid. Since the cheese found in Egypt was unfermented, it has been called the oldest sample of solid cheese to have been discovered.

The process of making cheese has been found painted on the walls of ancient Egyptians tombs. These murals have also depicted cheese being used as a bartering item. It is also thought that cheese may have been used as a type of medicine by ancient Egyptians. However, based on what else was found within the cheese from the tomb of Ptahmes, it probably would not have been a good idea to have used this particular batch of cheese as any sort of medicine.

Along with the identification of the white substance as an ancient cheese, it was discovered that lurking within the depths of the cheese was a bacterial species called Brucella melitensis. This Gram-negative coccobacillus bacteria is the cause of brucellosis, a type of food poisoning which can pass from animals to humans through the consumption of unsterilized dairy products. Exposure to the B. melitensis bacteria causes the victim to suffer from fever and aching muscles and other symptoms similar to those of the flu. While the main animals that tend to be infected by B. melitensis bacteria are goats and sheep, animals such as cows, dogs, horses, and pigs can also contract the B. melitensis bacteria, as can humans.

Finding signs of the B. melitensis bacteria in the ancient cheese provides the earliest known evidence of the bacteria which still exists today. The effects of brucellosis have been found on the bones of mummies from ancient Egypt, so finding the bacteria in cheese provides support that the ancient Egyptians suffered from the disease that they acquired by consuming contaminated dairy products.

In spite of the presence of this pathogen, many who have heard the news are curious about the taste of the cheese. Based on the fact that the cheese is made from the milk of either sheep or goats, it is likely that the cheese had a sharp and very acidic taste, although no one can be sure what it would taste like after having aged for all of these years.

Like the large black sarcophagus that was discovered in Alexandria last month, where some clamored for a taste of the red liquid found inside of the sarcophagus, there is apparently a growing call for access to the recently discovered ancient cheese. Comments on both discoveries requesting to consume either the cheese or the sarcophagus liquid ranged from a desire to ingest cursed cheese and discover the magical powers that it would confer, to a simple thirst to know what flavor the highly aged cheese has developed.

It would seem that the public is hungry for the mysterious taste of a curse.

Jessica McGregor

My name is Jessica McGregor, and I am currently writing my thesis to complete my Ph.D. in bioanalytical chemistry at the University of British Columbia. I plan to use my knowledge and experience in science and my writing skills to become a science writer professionally.

Cite this article as:
Jessica McGregor. Ancient Cheese Found Preserved In Egyptian Tomb, Science Trends, 2018.
DOI: 10.31988/SciTrends.27815
*Note, DOIs are registered Friday weekly and therefore may not work until then.

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