Whether it’s a humble toastie or a decadently gooey raclette, we 21st-century humans are all about the cheese. And why shouldn’t we be? Cheese is life, a fact even the Ancient Egyptians knew when they sealed up the 3,200-year-old clay pot of cheese that archaeologists uncovered in the tomb of Ptahmes in July 2018.
Treasure hunters discovered the tomb in 1885 in the necropolis of Saqqara. Ptahmes was the mayor of Memphis, the capital of Ancient Egypt, according to hieroglyphs found nearby. The raiders excavated artefacts from the tomb, many of which are on display at museums in Italy, the Netherlands and the United States.
Unfortunately – or fortunately, for Ptahmes’s soul – the location of the 70m (230ft) tomb was never recorded, and it was hidden by desert sands for 125 years. In 2010 archaeologists rediscovered it, and they continue to study the tomb to this day.
The cheese, found among broken pottery, was likely a part of a traditional burial feast. When Ancient Egyptians who held important positions died, they were often buried with a feast that would prepare them for their journey into the afterlife.
Mummified feasts usually consisted of foods the person enjoyed while they were living; the tomb was supposed to reflect their life on Earth, or at least an aspirational version of it. As Egyptologist Salima Ikram reports to the Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly: “Sometimes these feasts were more lavish than anything people would actually enjoy in daily life.”
While it’s been claimed that the discovery is the world’s oldest cheese, that may not be true. It is the largest sample of ancient cheese to be uncovered by archaeologists, but older evidence of cheese production has been found in Poland, China and Egypt, some dating back 7,000 years.
Enrico Greco, the chemist who analysed the 3,200-year-old cheese, says that the older samples are “more attributable to natural fermented milk like yoghurt or kefir,” in conversation with The Telegraph. Greco claims the cheese from Ptahmes’s tomb is “the oldest solid cheese ever found”.
If you enjoy the sharp tang of an aged cheddar, then you’re probably wondering what Ancient Egyptian cheese tasted like. Greco’s official report in Analytical Chemistry determined that the cheese was made from a combination of cow’s and sheep’s or goat’s milk. This has led to speculation that the cheese is likely to have tasted like a very sour chèvre.
Descriptions of the cheeses eaten by Egyptians in the Middle Ages suggest that soft, semi-hard and hard cheeses were being consumed during the period. However, the discovery in Ptahmes’s tomb shows that cheese was eaten in Egypt way before this time.
Many believe that Egyptian artefacts carry a curse thanks to a prevailing myth that originated in the 19th century.
Victorians were somewhat obsessed with interactions between the living and dead. The first translation of The Book of the Dead was published in 1842, at the height of the mysticism trend, leading to a fascination with Ancient Egyptian curses and artefacts. However, it’s now known that the 19th-century popular understanding of The Book of the Dead largely misinterprets the complex belief structures of the Ancient Egyptians.
Nevertheless, the myth of the mummy’s curse has persisted. In July 2018, archaeologists unearthed a sarcophagus in Alexandria, inside of which was a mysterious fluid. Despite reports that the fluid is mostly sewage water, people want to drink the “sarcophagus juice” in order to “assume [the skeletons’] powers”, with a farcical petition having garnered 30,000 signatures at the time of writing. Some have even taken to social media to suggest that Ptahmes’s cheese be dipped in the juice.
The cheese is probably just as dangerous to consume as the juice, though not because it’s cursed. The kind of misfortune you’ll suffer from eating the funerary cheese comes courtesy of Brucella melitensis. Greco and his team noted that it was laced with the bacteria. Enjoy the cheese with a water cracker and a touch of quince paste, and you can expect severe fevers, body aches and night sweats after five days. If left untreated, B. melitensis poisoning is difficult to treat and can cause permanent nerve damage and recurrent symptoms like chronic fatigue – curses in and of themselves.