Pandemic Bakers Bring the Past to Life
Around 2000 B.C., a baker in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes captured yeast from the air and kneaded it into a triangle of dough. The baked bread was then buried in a dedication ceremony beneath the temple of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II on the west bank of the Nile.
There the yeast slept like a microbial mummy for four millennia, until 2019, when Seamus Blackley—a physicist and game designer best known for creating the Xbox—suctioned it up with a syringe and revived it in a sourdough starter.
Blackley, an amateur Egyptologist, thinks about this ancient baker often as he attempts to re-create the bread of 2000 B.C. “I’m trying to learn from you, my friend,” he tweeted, as if speaking across time to the baker. “Your voice will never be silent. … May you have life, forever.”
This spring, as people around the world sheltered at home to avoid spreading or catching the coronavirus, many home cooks cultivated their baking hobby or learned to make sourdough. Some housebound archaeologists took the trend to the next level by replicating baking methods from Roman Pompeii or Neolithic Turkey.
Blackley, for example, is collaborating with archaeologist Serena Love of Australia-based Everick Heritage consultancy to bake bread using what they believe is 4,000-year-old yeast and ancient techniques in his backyard in California. In March, he successfully baked a loaf in an earthen pit, similar to the way the Egyptians baked in the time of the pyramids. The bread was as dense as cake, with a rich, sour aroma and a comforting sweetness akin to brown sugar. “It’s magic,” Love says, “because he’s actually brought the past alive.”
These achievements sparked a sensation, with news outlets and foodie podcasts chronicling the story of these “raiders of the lost yeast.” But Blackley and Love’s motivation is not purely culinary curiosity. These “gastroegyptology” adventures—along with other edible archaeological feats taking place during the pandemic—fall into a subfield known as experimental archaeology. Modernized in the 1960s, this increasingly popular area of research involves re-creating everything from ancient ships to stone tools to beer.
As the culinary experiments suggest, experimental archaeologists are on a quest to fill in the blanks of the archaeological record, to bring the lessons of the past into the present, and to experience what it felt like, smelled like, and tasted like to live in the distant past.
The pandemic has brought on a nostalgia for the past, and many experimental archaeologists and home cooks are bringing lessons from history into the present through their kitchens. In early May, more than 100 people logged onto Zoom to learn to bake like a first-century Roman. The audience watched as Farrell Monaco, an archaeologist and baking instructor studying the bread of Pompeii at the University of Leicester, formed her dough into a circle and cinched it up with twine. Then, wielding another piece of twine like dental floss, she deftly scored the dough into eight wedges, perfectly re-creating the Roman Empire’s most iconic bread: the panis quadratus.
Monaco is translating her archaeological insights into practical tips for contemporary cooks that are particularly useful during a pandemic. In many parts of the world, as COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect in March and April, ingredients like yeast and white flour flew off supermarket shelves.
Given the shortage of these supplies, some cooks turned to traditional methods that sustained our ancestors during times of scarcity. Sourdough making has been on the rise, and bakers and homebrewers are plundering online stores of Viking flour and heirloom grains.
When Monaco saw the run on baking supplies, she started teaching the techniques she had learned from the artworks, writings, and relics of Pompeii. “I was telling people, ‘Stop panicking,’” she says. “You don’t need a sourdough starter. You don’t need yeast. You’re gonna ferment dough, just like our ancestors did.”
At the same time, other experimental archaeologists began cooking up edible investigations. Most of these efforts have been in the works for years, but many projects have gained momentum amid the pandemic’s home-baking craze.
Leslie Warden of Roanoke College in Virginia has commandeered her daughter’s kiddie pool to make malted grain for Egyptian beer. Laura Dietrich, based at the German Archaeological Institute, is grinding einkorn, a wild species of wheat, on a handstone modeled after a Neolithic artifact from Turkey. Bill Schindler, of Washington College in Maryland, is slathering his homemade sourdough with fermented butter made in a manner inspired by Bronze Age Irish cooks.
And Love and Blackley are continuing their attempts to discover how Egypt’s pyramid builders made their staple food.
Love and Blackley’s collaboration began well before the pandemic. In April 2019, a friend of Love’s tagged her in a Twitter thread that intrigued her. Blackley had tweeted that a brewer colleague had given him ancient yeast scraped from an Egyptian bread pot. He said he was using it to bake sourdough and offered to share the antediluvian yeast with anyone who wanted it.
Love was excited about getting ancient yeast for her homebrewing experiments. She also thought the yeast could offer clues to some mysteries about bread making and brewing, which were central to ancient Egyptian culture.
The people who built the Egyptian pyramids were themselves built by bread and beer. Workers were given a daily ration of about 10 loaves of bread and several pints’ worth of thick, soupy beer they slurped with straws. The Egyptians had 117 words for bread and around 40 words for beer. But they didn’t write down a single recipe. “There are so many holes in the archaeological record,” Love says.
Love knew that yeast could survive without food for thousands of years in a hibernation-like state called quiescence. Still, she was skeptical. So, she immediately messaged Blackley, whom she had never met. After peppering him with questions, she informed him that he probably had 21st-century yeast that had settled onto the ancient pots.
But they were both motivated to do the job properly. So along with University of Iowa microbiologist Richard Bowman, they developed a plan to extract 4,000-year-old yeast from inside the pores of Egyptian artifacts. Bowman devised a method using a needleless syringe, nutrient-filled liquid, and a cotton ball to gather yeast without destroying the objects, killing the yeast, or contaminating it with modern microorganisms.
“It’s magic,” archaeologist Serena Love says of Blackley’s bread. “He’s actually brought the past alive.”
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston granted Love, Blackley, and Bowman permission to access their ancient Egyptian artifacts. In July 2019, Blackley, as the team’s in-person emissary, went to the museum to gather samples from the collection’s bread pots, beer vessels, and a loaf of bread. Though baking kills yeast, it was possible that live yeast had wafted from the bakery air or the temple’s soils and settled into the nooks and crannies of the bread and pots.
The team’s intent was to test the yeast’s DNA and confirm its age before conducting any experiments. With a DNA analysis, Blackley, Love, and Bowman can start to answer several questions. Most importantly, Love wants to find out if bread and beer yeast were two different species in ancient Egypt or if they were the same species, as they are today. If they were the same species, that might mean brewers were skimming the yeasty foam off their beer and giving it to bakers to stir into sourdough starters. That could indicate they knew the same mysterious entity lay behind both staples.
DNA tests could also tell the scientists about the ingredients and styles of bread and beer. Were there regional variations? Could one identify a yeast strain as characteristic of the brewing center of Hierakonpolis, for example, and then track that beer (and perhaps bread) through trade routes?
With these questions in mind, Blackley obtained several samples with the museum’s permission. But he also pocketed a sample from the bread loaf for his own home use. Blackley brought his yeast sample home and sterilized everything in his kitchen (including the flour) to prevent contamination with modern microbes. Then the experimentation began.
The Egyptians left behind numerous clues—breadcrumbs, if you will—about baking and brewing in their artwork, writings, and pottery. Paintings in a Fifth Dynasty tomb at the Saqqara necropolis depict part of the process of baking, but they skip essential steps. So, when archaeologists attempted to bake bread based on these images back in the 1990s, the results were “less than delightful”: sour, brick-heavy, burnt loaves that stuck to the pots.
Clearly, the ancient Egyptians possessed baking knowledge they didn’t document. The only way to find out what that might have been is through continued experimental archaeology.
So, starting in July 2019, Blackley began extreme baking. To make sourdough bread, bakers need to ensure the yeast is alive, active, and in balance with the ambient bacteria. They create a moist environment made of water and flour, and continually feed the yeast flour. When the yeasts digest the sugars, they release carbon dioxide, which makes the bread rise.
Blackley and Love knew the Egyptians baked with barley and two ancestors of wheat: einkorn and emmer. So he decided to feed the yeast those grains.
When Blackley gave the yeast wheat, it sat there like a lump. When he fed it emmer, “it took off like a rocket,” Love says. That was their first clue that this yeast might have been alive and munching on emmer when Mentuhotep II was pharaoh.
Emmer is a notoriously heavy grain that produces ultra-dense breads. Blackley couldn’t believe the pyramid builders were choking down 10-plus loaves of rock-hard bread a day. So, he experimented with methods the Egyptians might have used to make their loaves fluffier. He had good luck with an “autolyse,” a technique of resting the sourdough starter for about half an hour.
Love and Blackley researched ancient texts and found that the ancient Egyptians sometimes spiced their bread with roasted coriander. Blackley further hypothesized that the Egyptians seasoned their baking pots with oil to prevent the bread from sticking.
Love did some digging and told him they might have used flaxseed oil or fat from geese, ducks, goats, sheep, beef, or pork. Every fat Blackley tried worked like a charm.
Amr Shahat, a Ph.D. candidate in archaeobotany and archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, notes that the Egyptians likely seasoned their pots with oil immediately after creating these ceramics. Based on wheat chaff found on ancient bread, he believes they may have also coated bread dough with bran to prevent it from sticking.
Blackley and Love’s combination of archaeological evidence, chemical analysis, and practical skills is typical of experimental archaeology. “The fascinating thing for me as an archaeologist,” Love says, “is that [Blackley] is not an archaeologist. He’s a baker. So he’s approaching this completely differently, and he’s coming up with answers to problems that only a baker would know.”
Experimental archaeologists believe that minute attention to detail is crucial on several levels. For example, when Monaco re-creates Roman breads, she must meticulously replicate ingredients to answer questions about the centrality of panis quadratus to Roman life and society. But she also wants to understand what it was like for women and slaves to make and eat this staple food.
“I want to understand the sensory aspects that went into it—the smells, the tastes, the backache, and the shaking arms that come from hand milling,” says Monaco, who grinds her flour by hand. “When I have an ache in my lower back, it connects me to the daily doldrums of women hunched over bread and slaves having to stand at a table, kneading and kneading and forming the dough.”
Love has similar motivations. “Experimental archaeology gives us that sensory input that is difficult to get from other studies,” she says. To re-create the sensory experiences of the pyramid builders, Love and Blackley can’t just replicate ancient ingredients; they have to bake like an Egyptian.
Prior to the pandemic, Blackley had been working with a 21st-century oven. But the pyramid builders took an earthier approach. Love and Blackley discussed archaeological excavations of bakeries, as well as the Saqqara images, which storyboard a method for baking bread underground.
In March, after his home state of California had issued shelter-in-place orders, Blackley succeeded in replicating a similar technique. He blazed two seasoned clay pots in a fire, poured the dough into one of the pots and placed the other on top. He lowered it into a hole filled with orange-hot embers, then covered it with more embers and baked it.
While the archaeological record provided a starting point, Blackley had to work out the details through trial and error. For example, he discovered it’s necessary to place coals beneath the bread pots as well as on top of them, or the setup will collapse.
These experiments can fill in the blanks of the historical record. They also allow scientists to re-create the sensations ancient Egyptian bakers must have felt as they churned out tens of thousands of loaves a day: the smoke from the fires stinging their eyes, the soot sticking to their sweaty arms, the clay pots burning their calloused fingers, and the sweet taste of the coriander-spiced bread.
“It gets you more in touch with the humanity,” Love says. “You realize that these people in the past were just people like you and I. And something as simple as baking bread that has been done for thousands and thousands of years isn’t too different from how we do it today.”
COVID-19 has delayed the scientists’ yeast-DNA studies. If the analysis confirms the yeast’s age, the collaborators want to return these microorganisms to Egypt—in recognition that they are artifacts belonging to that country—and then request formal permission from Egyptian authorities before continuing their research. But while they wait, Love and Blackley will continue their experiments with more authentic replica clay pots and historically accurate fuels such as acacia trees.
Meanwhile, other experimental archaeologists are pursuing their culinary adventures. Bowman brewed beers with yeast Blackley collected from the bread loaf and from a beer vessel, and the two brews’ distinctive flavors suggest that ancient Egyptian bread and beer yeast may have been different. Schindler is detoxifying potatoes for French fries using methods inspired by Indigenous Peruvians. And Monaco is ironing out plans for building a Pompeiian kitchen on her property.
“I would prefer to work in a re-created bakery setting where you can smell the donkey manure and the wood fire at the same time,” Monaco says. “I don’t have that at my disposal yet. But I’m working on it.”
This article was republished at The Atlantic.