The unfounded promise of mummy wheat: revitalizing life from long-dead seeds
People usually prefer fresh produce, but Victorian era Europeans once spent enormous resources on getting seeds and plants that were at least 3,000 years old. The seeds didn’t taste better, nor did they offer any proven nutritional advantages over modern plants. The draw was instead some vaguely insinuated magic that the seeds and plants might posses as a result of having supposedly been entombed alongside mummies. As ancient Egypt filled Europeans’ imagination with thoughts of pharaohs, mummies and magic, any object associated with a tomb was irresistible to collectors. Owning a piece of ancient Egypt, even if it was just a handful of seeds from so-called “mummy wheat,” became a coveted goal that then attracted charlatans and frustrated botanists for years.
Despite the name, mummy wheat was not directly part of the mummification process for dead bodies, not that would have dented some collectors’ enthusiasm. It was simply seeds stored in sealed vases and pots with the intention that the deceased could use it in their next life. The belief was that the afterlife was basically a more idealistic version of one’s actual life, but only if you brought your stuff with you. So alongside jewelry, furniture and even mummified pets, Egyptians planned for their theoretical future by including practical items like beer, seeds and cakes. They probably didn’t plan for how all this would be interpreted by foreigners, or how it might help drive the local economy 3,000 years later.
Desires for prosperity and profit
Unlike other treasures found in ancient tombs, mummy wheat grabbed people’s attention with its mystery and sense of possibility. The seeds themselves were fine, but collectors wanted the seeds to grow and sprout into something bigger. The plants they hoped to grow had great cultural significance, as signs of long dormant power and vitality springing back to life. The wheat was associated with biblical references to Pharaoh’s seven-eared wheat in the book of Genesis. If that weren’t enough, some people also suggested that by sitting in a tomb for thousands of years, the seeds could now yield supernaturally-large harvests. Mummy wheat had something for everyone, which is part of why so many people were selling it.
People who wanted their own magic beans, er, seeds, could sellers near and far. In Egypt, locals responded to tourists’ demand by dumping seeds into ceramic jar, then sealing the lid to give it the appearance of antiquity. Since these seeds were basically fresh, getting a plant to grow wouldn’t be a problem, making for a satisfied customer. If people did get hold of truly ancient seeds, there was probably some pressure to get a plant out of them, giving these wealthy collectors’ gardeners reason to quietly substitute new seeds for the old. For folks who couldn’t make it to Egypt themselves, scam artists were known to even cross the pond, selling Canadians mummy peas for the equivalent of $285 (US) today.
Testing if seeds are dormant, or just dead
Even before this botanical craze started emptying people’s pockets, botanists had suspicions about these ancient seeds. Every controlled study of the seeds failed to grow a plant, and while botanists were convinced they were infertile, the public was slow to listen. Anecdotal success stories, followed by fraudulent seed sales, kept the idea of mummy wheat alive in many people’s minds. The discussion was further distorted by racism, with debunkers often blaming ‘Arabs frauds’ for selling fake seeds while ignoring the role of European scams and sales.
Eventually, as the general fascination with ancient Egypt declined, associations with the seeds shifted from dormant vitality to a symbol of foolishness and gullibility. While some foods entombed with ancient mummies have been found to be safe to eat, there’s no sign that these seeds had any life left in them.
Source: The Myth of Mummy Wheat by Gabriel Moshenska, History Today