World's 'most ancient' solid cheese found in dug up Egyptian jar

Henrietta Brewer
August 18, 2018

It would take another 125 years for archaeologists from Cairo University to uncover the tomb again, finding several finely preserved stelae in its confines - but still no cheese!

The very vintage cheese was buried alongside Ptahmes - Mayor of the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis - whose resting place was rediscovered in 2010 after being lost under the desert sand.

Aged cheeses might have an appeal but a 3,200-year-old sample of the popular dairy product found in Egypt may be just a little too old - and diseased - for even the most dedicated cheese connoisseurs.

Dr Greco said: "The material analysed in this study is probably the most ancient archaeological solid residue of cheese ever found to date". In one of the jars a "solidified whitish mass" was found together with a canvas fabric that may well have been once used to cover the jar's contents.

"This is the oldest solid cheese ever found", Enrico Greco, a scientist with the department of chemical sciences at the University of Catania who co-authored the report, said.

In ancient Egypt, milk had to be consumed shortly after milking or else it would spoil without refrigeration, so it was often turned into cheese and other fermented products like yogurt. The cheese was found wrapped with canvas inside a broken jar.

To cut the researchers some slack - but not the cheese (I'm sorry) - Ptahmes's tomb is over 70 meters long and features an impressive assortment of chapels. Evidence also suggests the cheese contains the earliest reported sample of a potentially deadly disease, brucellosis, which spreads from animals to people. This revealed peptides which indicated that the substance was a dairy product, and that it was made from cow milk and sheep or goat milk.

Adventurous eaters be warned: The cheese may not be cursed, but the analysis found evidence of a bacteria that causes brucellosis, an infectious disease that can cause fevers, headaches, muscle pain and other symptoms that can reoccur or never go away at all.

"Until now, we were not sure whether it was really part of the daily life of the ancient Egyptians", said Greco.

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