Wednesday, October 27, 2010


So, while I seem to be in an Egyptological mood, I might as well take advantage of it to make three quick related posts.

(1) One of the books I took with me to read on my recent trip (#II.2874) was PHARAOH'S FLOWERS: THE BOTANICAL TREASURES OF TUTANKHAMUN by F. Nigel Hepper [2nd ed, 2009], a beautifully illustrated little book. I'd seen this in one of the book catalogues I've been getting ever since I started going to Kalamazoo, clipped it out, and then amazingly enough not lost the reference in the intervening months before I finally got around to ordering it.

It turns out to be very much the sort of book you'll really like if you like books like this, and I most definitely do. Basically Hepper, a researcher at the Kew Botanical Gardens, takes every kind of plant found within Tutankhamun's tomb (wood, spice, food, fiber) and explains whether it was native to Egypt (papyrus, willow, linen/flax), not native but capable of being grown there in carefully tended gardens or fields or orchards (cornflowers, wheat, olive trees, barley), or exotic imports (birch-bark, cedar of Lebannon, myrrh, frankincense). It was disappointing to learn that stories of seeds taken from the tomb being planted and sprouting are spurious. Like Hepper, I find myself curious about what persea fruit might taste like. And I enjoyed his story about the amazing discovery, a few years ago, of tiny grains of tobacco in some New Kingdom tombs. How cd this be, when tobacco is a New World plant? Turns out that (a) 19th century archeologists loved them their snuff and (b) our modern equipment for detecting and analyzing plant residue has become fantastically sophisticated. It was also interesting to learn that Egyptian beekeepers wore no sort of protective garments -- Hepper assumes they just had to suck up getting stung as part of the job; I suspect they simply used slow, gentle movements to avoid alarming their bees.

Of all the things found in the tomb, though, the one that surprised me the most was the discovery that King Tut liked watermelons. I had no idea they had watermelons (recognizably like the roundish ones still popular today) in ancient Egypt, but they found a batch of watermelon seeds in the tomb -- apparently the Egyptians liked to eat them like sunflower seeds.

The most moving thing of all, and the one biggest take-away from the book (aside from my ever-increasing admiration for ancient people's ingenuity in discovering food resources) are the flowers that were found in the innermost coffin, laid directly on the young king's body. It drove home, as nothing else does, that this is not 'an archeological sight' but a burial: it's not hard to picture the young widow placing them there just before the lid was put on for the last time, just as people still do today.

In short, a fascinating little book, lavishly illustrated (in both black & white and color). I might have to follow it up by searching down one of the books mentioned in its bibliography, Zohary & Hopf's THE DOMESTICATION OF PLANTS IN THE OLD WORLD [1993], assuming it's non-specialist enough to not be too opaque to a general reader.



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