Ancient White Stuff in Egyptian Tomb Turned Out to Be World's Oldest Cheese

Bust out the crackers!

In 1885, archeologists discovered a tomb in Saccara, the ancient Egyptian burial grounds in the northeast reaches of the country. They had no idea that this tomb, belonging to the mayor of the ancient capital of Memphis, was also home to what would become, in 2018, the titleholder of “world’s oldest cheese.”

The tomb, as Inverse reported in August, was actually lost the sand shortly after it was found, only to be rediscovered in 2010. Upon re-excavation, archeologists found a jar with a solid white mass inside it. Its identity remained a mystery for a while, but this year, scientists publishing in Analytical Chemistry finally determined that it’s a piece of cheese dating to the 13th century BCE. That makes the cheese about 3,200 years old — the world’s oldest solid cheese.

This is #9 on Inverse’s list of the 25 Most WTF stories of 2018.

Ptahmes's tomb was nearby the pyramid of the ancient pharaoh Unas.

Wikimedia Commons

Archeologists had deduced that the substance was some kind of food based on the type of jar it was in, the white canvas cloth alongside it, and its position in the tomb. Ptahmes, the mayor, was likely meant to take it along on his journey to the afterlife. But identifying the strange substance wasn’t easy because millennia of weathering had stripped it of its fat molecules, which usually offer a lot of information about its chemical makeup.

“We started with typical fat analysis, but it was not possible to find any kind of fat because the sample was conserved in very stressful conditions due to thousands of years of rainfall and Nile flood, and then cycles of dryness,” study co-author and Peking University ancient compounds specialist Enrico Greco, Ph.D., told Inverse. “Specifically, the water dissolved the alkaline salt in the surrounding environment and transformed all the fats in the cheeses.”

Jar and canvas discovered inside the tomb of Ptahmes.

Enrico Greco

Without fat to turn to, the team had to look at another, more well-preserved chemical building block in the unknown substance to identify it: protein. By dissolving the white mass, extracting its protein constituents, and identifying them through liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry, they were able to determine their source: cow milk, together more milk from either a sheep or a goat.

This final piece of the puzzle sealed the deal. Why else would there be a hardened mixture of ruminants’ milks, covered with a canvas fabric, in an ancient jar if not for the fact that it was cheese for the dead?

Unfortunately for Ptahmes, there was little doubt his cheese would have spoiled early on during his journey to the afterlife. Shortly after the team announced their findings, Paul Kindstedt, Ph.D., a University of Vermont expert on the chemistry and history of cheese, told the The New York Times that the chevre-like cheese, with its acidic bite, would “not last long; it would spoil very quickly.”

As 2018 draws to a close, Inverse is counting down the 25 stories that made us go WTF. Some are gross, some are amazing, and some are just, well, WTF. In our ranking from least to most WTF, this has been #9. Read the original article here.

Watch the full 25 WTF countdown in the video below.

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