Ancient Bread Rises in Gourmet Status

By Wu, Corinna | Science News, July 27, 1996 | Go to article overview

Ancient Bread Rises in Gourmet Status


Wu, Corinna, Science News


Separating the wheat from the chaff was no easy task for the ancient Egyptians, who used a tough-hulled type of wheat called emmer to make bread and beer. Modern interpretations of ancient documents portray their bread as coarse and gritty. A new study, however, suggests that the ancient Egyptians were better bakers and brewers than these documents had let on. An analysis of some very stale bread loaves-up to 4,000 years old-and beer residues clinging to shards of pottery shows that ancient Egyptians actually used fairly sophisticated processing techniques. The conclusions, published in the July 26 Science, offer insight into the evolution of food preparation. They have even inspired a beer that made its debut earlier this month.

Delwen Samuel, an archaeobotanist at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge in England, examined the samples with both optical and scanning electron microscopes. The bread loaves came from several ancient Egyptian sites, dating from 2000 to 1200 B.C. The beer residues were found at two sites where workmen lived-Deir el-Medina (1550 to 1307 B.C.) and Amarna (1350 B.C.).

Samuel could distinguish the different baking methods from the shapes of the microscopic starch granules. "Unprocessed starch takes a spherical shape," she says, "but the round balls change shape if they've been processed. …

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