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Packing Food for the Hereafter in Ancient Egypt

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In a painting from a lavishly decorated tomb, porters deliver ducks, fish, and clusters of grapes for the deceased to enjoy in the afterflife. The tomb owner, a man named Menna, served as a pharaoh's scribe in about 1380 B.C.

When death came, as it inevitably did, the ancient Egyptian pharaohs and their relatives were ready for it. Each had spent years preparing a lavish tomb stocked with everything they might need or want in the afterlife, including food, preserved for eternity.

Even meat and poultry were on the menu. To keep these highly perishable foods tasty until the end of time, the Egyptians mummified them—slowly drying them with salt, bandaging them and covering the bundle with resins—much as they would a human body.

recent study has identified one of the resins used in this process: the sap from a tree related to the pistachio, which was slathered over beef ribs before they were buried with the great grandparents of King Tutankhamun King Tutankhamun in about 1400 B.C. This wasn’t any ordinary goo, though. Imported from what is now Syria and Lebanon, it was an expensive substance available only to the rich and powerful. When it appeared among funerary goods, it became highly symbolic, evoking a fundamental belief about death.

“Once you were dead and mummified, you became a god,” says mummy expert Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo. “And gods inhaled those resinous substances.”

Today a similar resin, known as mastic (or mastik), is used in Mediterranean cuisine to add a smoky, almost pine-y flavor to foods—savory sauces, cheeses, chewing gum, ice cream, puddings, and pastries. “They use it in grain [dishes] like peppercorn,” says Amy Riolo, author of Nile Style: Egyptian Cuisine and Culture, and in Greece and Turkey it’s even found in bottled water.

In Egypt mastic sometimes turns up in custom-ground batches of coffee—as Ikram discovered by accident one day. “I was buying a bag of coffee to take home, and the man in the shop said, ‘Let me give you my special,’” she remembers. “He tossed a handful of resin chunks in with the beans and then ground it all up. The mastic makes for an unusual taste, which is quite delicious.”

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The contents of King Tut’s tomb included 48 wooden boxes of meat mummies, stacked beneath a ritual couch that took the shape of a spotted cow.

A variety of resin-coated foods were recovered from the tomb of King Tut’s great grandfather and great grandmother—Yuya and Tuyu. At the time of its discovery in 1905, the burial still held the two original mummified occupants and some of their funerary equipment, although it had been robbed more than once in antiquity. Among other things, archaeologists discovered 17 wooden boxes of food, each carved into the shape of what it contained—a leg of veal wrapped in linen, for instance, as well as a shoulder of antelope, three geese, two ducks, and small birds that may have been pigeons. Yuya and Tuyu believed that these delicacies would be magically available to them in the next life.

Ikram calls such ancient meats “victual mummies,” one of the four labels she uses to categorize living beings that were purposely preserved after death.

The best-known group, of course, are the mummies of people—mostly royals, nobles, and high officials. Those members of the upper class could best afford the labor-intensive process of mummification, which may have taken up to 70 days and required expensive ingredients such as a drying salt known as natron, and exotic oils and resins.

Occasionally people mummified their pets—another of Ikram’s groups—so the animals could accompany them to the next life.

And finally, many millions of creatures, including dogs, cats, ibises, baboons, shrews, and snakes, were specially bred to be mummified and then offered to the gods with a prayer. These became wildly popular in later pharaonic times, beginning with the 26th dynasty in about 664 B.C. Ikram calls them “votive mummies.” (Read more about Ikram’s studies of animal mummies in National Geographic Magazine’s “Animals EverlastingAnimals Everlasting.”)

The most extensive examples of victual mummies and other provisions for the afterlife come from the tomb of King Tut himself.

British archaeologist Howard Carter uncovered the teenage pharaoh’s final resting place in November of 1922. It’s now known as KV62—the 62nd tomb found in the Valley of the Kings, the cemetery of royals and nobles from the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties.

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Shortly after he discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter (at left) paused at the doorway to the pharaoh’s treasure-filled burial chamber. He was joined by Lord Carnarvon, the wealthy Englishman who financed his excavations.

KV62 had also been robbed, but what was left represented a stunning array of royal must-haves: 5398 objects, including the king’s famous solid-gold mask, which took Carter a decade to sort through. All are now catalogued online, along with Carter’s handwritten notes, in Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation on the website of the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford in the UK.

Scattered amid Tut’s other treasures, Carter discovered the fixings for royal feasts in the great beyond.

More than 100 finely woven baskets held the remains of plant-based foods such as wheat and barley, loaves of bread, sycamore figs, dates, melons, and grapes.

King Tut apparently had a sweet tooth. A ceramic jar almost eight inches tall retained the residue of a liquid that looked to Carter like honey.

Tut also knew how to enjoy himself. Other jars contained his wines. Each was labeled with the vineyard where the grapes were grown, the chief vintner, and the year of the pharaoh’s reign when the wine was made. At least some of it was red wine, identified by high-tech testing of residue from one of the jars.

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An official named Nakht wanted to make sure he’d have something nice to drink in the great beyond. His tomb paintings include scenes of harvesting grapes and pressing the fruit by foot to make wine, which was stored in tall ceramic jars with handles.

As for meats, four-dozen wooden boxes held a variety of victual mummies—many cuts of beef on the bone, nine ducks, four geese and various small birds. But no fish, even though the Nile was teeming with them. “The offerings are going to be the most high-class food, because this is for eternity,” explains Ikram. “Fish are nice, but you don’t get them on the offering list because they’re not the best food.” The same goes for pigs and sheep. Those meats were part of the normal diet, but apparently no one could imagine craving them for the rest of time.

“You have lovely pieces of poultry,” says Ikram. “And beef. Choice cuts with the most meaty bits. Yummy pieces that they would slice off. They’d cut the legs to get the nice meaty parts, not the stringier shins.”

In other words, people packed their eternal picnic baskets with a gourmet wish list, the things they knew they’d enjoy eating forever and ever.

“Whether or not you got it regularly in life didn’t matter,” says Ikram, “because you got it for eternity.”

Follow A.R.Williams on Twitter.