We all know the backstory of King Tut, or Tutankhamun, the Egyptian pharaoh who died under curious circumstances some 3,300 years ago. That legend was amplified by rumors that there was a “curse of the mummy,” spawned by the fact that several of the archaeological party that first unsealed the ruler’s tomb ended up deader than Tut himself.
Indeed, the mysteries surrounding not only the life and death of Tutankhamun but of the ritual mummification that he underwent are some of archaeology’s most intriguing secrets. He became pharaoh at age 9, a child who the result of an incestuous liaison between his father, King Akhenaten, and one of his father’s sisters.
As a result, he was stricken with genetic abnormalities, possible autoimmune diseases and died a mere 10 years later at the age of 19.
How he died isn’t the only mysterious circumstance involving the boy king. Chris Naunton, an archaeologist and director of the Egypt Exploration Society, recently revealed that Tut’s body appeared to have been burned, according to a story appearing online at LiveScience.com. He reported that when small samples of Tutankhamun’s bones and flesh were examined via electron microscopy, it was discovered that the pharaoh did burn after he was laid to rest inside his sealed tomb.
How is that possible? No one knows, although speculation is that the oils used in the embalming process must have soaked the linen Tut’s burial shroud. Those flammable oils then started a chain reaction that ignited and “cooked” Tutankhamen's body at approximately 400 degrees F.
If you believe in spontaneous combustion, that is, another mystery science has been unable to fully explain.
How’d you like your steak? Mummified.
Here’s another strange but true factoid: Did you know that mummified cuts of meat were commonly found in ancient Egyptian burial tombs. In fact, according to LiveScience, the oldest such finds date back to around 3300 BC. That tradition apparently continued into the latest periods of mummification in the 4th century AD.
Given Tut’s prominence, then, it’s no wonder that the famous pharaoh went to his final resting place surrounded by 48 cases of beef and poultry.
British bio-geochemist Richard Evershed, of the University of Bristol, and his colleagues were curious about how these cuts were prepared. They also wondered if the mummification methods for meat differed from how Egyptians treated the bodies of the prominent royalty entombed with a king’s ration of meat.
The team analyzed four samples from meat mummies archived at the Cairo and British museums. According to the story, the oldest was a rack of beef ribs from the tomb of Tjuiu, an Egyptian noblewoman, and a courtier named Yuya. That royal serving of mummified beef dates back to about 1380 BC.
It makes sense to see a sophisticated embalming substance on the beef cuts, the Evershed and his team concluded. Yuya and Tjuiu were “an Egyptian power couple” and parents of the wife of pharaoh Amenhotep III, Tut’s grandfather. “As the queen’s parents, they would have merited a no-expenses-spared burial,” they wrote.
So animal foods were essential—indeed, revered—components not only of Egyptian’s ordinary diets, but objects of such high value they were included as sacred totems of the earthly possessions pharaoh’s would need to navigate the afterlife.
Of course, I suppose one could try to make the argument, as vegie activists always do, that the ancient Egyptians might have revered meat, but what did they know of modern dietary guidelines, anyway? Okay, they built the Great Pyramids, the most enduring, iconic structures in history—one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, according to historians and archaeologists—but so what?
Modern civilization has progressed, and we no longer need to practice animal husbandry, nor consume any meat, much less practice the mummification of meat products as part of a ritualistic burial ceremony.
I would prefer to think of it this way. Any civilization that lasts for thousands of years and is able to surpass all others in terms of science, math architecture and language ought to be given credit for knowing a little something about humanity’s optimal diet, as well.
Personally, I don’t plan on having a rack of beef (vacuum) packed away in my coffin—but I’ve got a lot of respect for the ancients who did.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.