A popular myth emerged in Britain during the 1840s stating that wheat grains taken from Egyptian tombs and the wrappings of mummies could be successfully germinated and cultivated. A century later, in part due to the efforts of the Royal Botanic Gardens and the British Museum, the myth of mummy wheat had been comprehensively debunked. Since the mid-nineteenth century seed scientists have repeatedly shown that wheat stored in dry or desiccating conditions loses its vitality within a few years. The seeds that mummy wheat proponents cultivated, exchanged, exhibited and cherished were, without a doubt, not ancient and some were not even from Egypt.
The myth that wheat, peas, bulbs and other plants could germinate after millennia spent sealed in ancient Egyptian tombs was a popular and pervasive one in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in countries including Britain, France, the United States, Canada and Australia where the revitalized grain was claimed to provide extraordinarily rich yields. This fascination with cultivating and studying mummy wheat brought together a curious community including prominent figures in the worlds of science, Egyptology, agricultural improvement, and the arts. Mummy wheat became a popular cultural trope; a symbol of resurrection and rebirth seized upon by poets and painters and preached from pulpits.
Yet even as mummy wheat was celebrated by antiquarians and amateur Egyptologists, a backlash had begun. In the early 1840s, the British Association for the Advancement of Science had begun the first controlled experiments into the vitality of mummy wheat. Without fail these tests, and others over the following decades, were unsuccessful. This marked the beginning of a divide between popular and scholarly approaches to mummy wheat that would grow and harden over the following century, reflecting wider themes of authority and power in the development of British Egyptology within nineteenth-century intellectual culture.
Mummy wheat rose to prominence in 1840s Britain at a time when the study of Ancient Egypt was still the preserve of gentleman-scholars, and seed science was in its infancy. Over the following century, the steadily declining fortunes of the mummy wheat myth trace developments in both of these fields. As gifted amateur scholars of Ancient Egypt such as Wilkinson and Pettigrew gave way to Birch, Budge and other professionals, belief in mummy wheat appears to have become one of a number of signifiers of ‘outsider’ status. Egyptology was, and remains, a field where the line between amateur and professional can be blurred, and in such circumstances, it is not uncommon for the boundaries to be policed with more than usual vigour. Thus, Budge’s attempts to debunk the myth through collaborative scientific experiments in 1897 and 1934 were likely driven in part by his frustration at incessant public inquiries on the subject, but also as a means of personal and disciplinary self-fashioning by reinforcing the wall separating experts from enthusiasts.
The myth of mummy wheat has endured. In 2018, New Scientist magazine reported a new study by John Dickie of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. Dickie’s study was based on modeling the temperature and humidity inside the tomb of Nefertari, wife of Ramesses II. He concluded that, given the fluctuations in temperature in even the best-sealed tomb, all of the grain would be dead within 89 years. However, despite this and other scientific setbacks, the myth of mummy wheat will likely rise again.
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