Stupid Question ™

Jan. 16, 2003

By John Ruch

© 2003

 

Q: Is it true that wheat from ancient Egyptian tombs can still grow?

—H.L.

 

 

A: As test after test has conclusively demonstrated, the “mummy wheat” found in ancient Egyptian tombs never germinates.

            The suspiciousness of the claim is obvious when you see how it was first presented in the early 1840s. It was in the form of an ad claiming the wheat was preternaturally productive, and offering to sell you some for the modern equivalent of about $12 for a single grain (minimum purchase: a packet of 10 grains).

            Wheat, some of it superficially well-preserved, is indeed found in ancient Egyptian tombs, placed there as food for the deceased’s journey in the afterlife.

            But it’s usually in earthenware containers or even in model silos. The original mummy wheat, however, supposedly came from a bag found clutched in a mummy’s hand—further indication that this was just another “miracle seed” hoax designed to capitalize on European Egyptomania and its life-after-death symbolism.

            There is no doubt that some of the mummy wheat grew—though what it grew into was modern British varieties, not ancient Egyptian ones.

            Claims of miraculous fertility were often backed with Bible quotes, especially from Genesis 41:5, where the pharaoh dreams of a single wheat stalk with seven “ears” of grain on it. It was surely no coincidence that the English Newcastle Farmers’ Club in 1846 claimed that its mummy wheat was as big as “seven English ears [of wheat] rolled into one.”

            Soon local guides at Egypt’s tombs were selling their own mummy wheat to gullible tourists.

            Botanists debunked mummy wheat from the start. Most tenacious was Wallis Budge, the British Museum’s director of Egyptian antiquities. In 1897 he provided the Royal Botanic Gardens with genuine 3,000-year-old tomb wheat to plant under controlled conditions. When nothing happened after three months, the seeds were exhumed and found to be rotting away.

            In 1933, Budge again provided wheat to the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, which found the seeded rotted completely in 16 days with no germination at all.

            Many similar experiments have had identical results. Indeed, cultivated cereals have some of the shortest shelf lives of all seeds. Specimens a mere 20 years old have proven unviable in scientific tests. Top-quality wheat stored under normal, dry, cool conditions will last about five years at best, and more likely about two years.

            With its hoax origins forgotten, the mummy wheat idea has survived due to theoretical credibility. After all, Egyptian tombs are unusually dry, fairly cool and might be sealed off from the standard insects and fungi.

            The Royal Botanic Garden last year released a study attacking the theoretical underpinning, saying that while tombs are certainly dry, their temperatures actually fluctuate widely.

            Using the shelf life of grains kept in modern subzero storage facilities as a guide, the Gardens estimated that under theoretically ideal conditions, only one wheat seed in 1,000 would survive in a tomb after about 240 years, with survival sharply declining after that to absolute zero after millennia.

           

 

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