A Cambridge scientist has used her loaf to bake bread just as the ancients did. Her recipe has included bits of old bread lying in museums, state-of-the-art imaging techniques and a talent for home baking.
Her work has revealed that the ancient Egyptians had much more sophisticated bread-making skills than was previously thought, using a variety of grains, temperatures and methods.
Delwyn Samuel, a research associate in the departments of plant sciences and archaeology, said that archaeologists have traditionally found out about Egyptian eating habits by examining tomb paintings and reading the literature. But the resulting theory about bread-making was simplistic. "It doesn't sit well with a culture that is very sophisticated. These artistic depictions are very difficult to interpret. And the literature is full of contradictions."
There is also plenty of ancient bread to examine, including whole loaves preserved because of the dry climate. Some bread was even found at a short-term site built for pyramid construction workers.
Dr Samuel has examined it under a scanning electron microscope, enabling her to see a clear, three-dimensional picture of the surface and study a relatively large expanse at one time. SEM has until now mainly been used on inorganic archaeological samples.
"The microstructure of these foods is extraordinarily well-preserved," she said. "I have been able to look at the individual starch granules.
"Starch changes its morphology according to the processes that have been carried out on the grain. I have been able to show that bread and beer were very sophisticated and varied a lot." The Egyptians used grains such as barley or Emmer wheat and malted them, which involves soaking, sprouting and drying. "They would have needed fairly controlled conditions," said Dr Samuel.
The next step was to test her ideas about the processes by baking the bread. She has tried baking at home, building her own Egyptian oven ("but it broke") and using ancient Egyptian tools. By sprouting Emmer wheat and making the dough very moist, she says she has almost produced bread to match the ancient specimens.