Despite a total lack of evidence, the belief that grains of wheat found in Ancient Egyptian tombs could produce bountiful crops was surprisingly hardy.
In 1897 Dr William Thiselton-Dyer, director of the Royal Botanic Garden, attempted to germinate grains of wheat taken from a 3,000-year-old Egyptian tomb. The wheat was a gift from E.A. Wallis Budge of the British Museum, who had found it inside a wooden model of a granary taken from the burial chamber by tomb robbers. Budge and Thiselton-Dyer waited patiently for any signs of life from the dark brown, desiccated wheat, planted and tended carefully under optimal laboratory conditions. To their great relief, none were forthcoming: after three months the earth was turned over and the wheat grains had dissolved into dust.
The popular belief that Ancient Egyptian wheat could germinate after millennia buried in tombs was an extraordinarily pervasive myth in Victorian Britain and beyond, flying in the face of a wealth of experimental data and basic common sense. The 1897 experiment was not the first scientific attempt to investigate and debunk the myth of ‘mummy wheat’, nor would it be the last. The debate over mummy wheat drew in botanists, Egyptologists, writers, mystics and charlatans: its traces can be found in their papers and in Victorian writings on science, poetry and religion.
The earliest mention of mummy wheat that I have traced is by the pioneering botanist Kaspar Maria von Sternberg, who claimed to have germinated wheat from an ancient Egyptian tomb at his home in Bohemia over the winter of 1833-4. At around the same time, the explorer John Gardner Wilkinson returned from his travels in Egypt and presented the British Museum with a number of antiquities. The opening of the packing crates was witnessed by Gardner Wilkinson and two friends, John Davidson and Thomas ‘Mummy’ Pettigrew, both known for their ‘unrollings’ of Egyptian mummies. As Pettigrew recalled, one of the sealed jars packed in the crates had broken during transit and the grains that it contained had spilled. He kept a handful of the grain for several years before sharing samples with friends. Although most of the grains rotted or were eaten by insects, one managed to germinate and produce a modest crop.
This lone success belonged to the writer and antiquarian Martin Farquhar Tupper, a hugely successful popular writer of trite aphorisms and abominable poetry now justly forgotten. Tupper recalled receiving a sample of wheat from Pettigrew in 1838 and planting it in pots in his living room two years later: one plant grew successfully and he transferred it to his garden in Albury, Surrey, where it produced 27 grains. These, in turn, generated a crop of more than 100 grains the following year. He wrote a letter to The Times announcing his success and sent a report on the experiments together with samples of the grain to prominent figures in science, agriculture and politics. Michael Faraday displayed the ear of wheat that he received at the Royal Institution to great interest. Prince Albert was an enthusiastic agricultural experimenter and promised to conduct his own tests with the seeds that Tupper sent him.
Not all the recipients were so credulous. The botanist John Lindley, editor of the Gardener’s Chronicle, suggested that most accounts of mummy wheat were ‘Arab frauds’: a strand of suspicion that runs, justly or not, throughout the history of mummy wheat, giving rise to some rabidly racist outbursts by mummy wheat sceptics. These included the botanist John Stevens Henslow, who discussed the mummy wheat phenomenon with his former student Charles Darwin, noting the need for further controlled experiments.
Seeds of doubt
European fascination with Ancient Egypt has a long history, extending back to Classical writers such as Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus. Egyptian architectural styles helped to shape the cities of the ancient world, while elements of Egyptian religion, such as the cult of Isis, influenced Roman and Christian practices. Renaissance scholars such as Athanasius Kircher studied Egyptian antiquities and texts, while the revival of Hermeticism and the study of the purported writings of Hermes Trismegistus fuelled an enduring and influential mystical fascination with Egypt.
Typically, British interest in Egyptian antiquities was driven and fuelled by military intervention and occupation, first during the Napoleonic Wars and later following the Anglo-Egyptian war of 1882. Throughout these periods a stream of travellers, soldiers, artists, explorers, civil servants and others brought Egyptian antiquities and artworks home to Britain as souvenirs or for sale, with some publishing memoirs and prints to further profit on their exploits. One of the best-known popularisers of Ancient Egypt was Giovanni Battista Belzoni, an Italian former circus strongman, who travelled to Egypt to market his invention of an ox-powered water-wheel. Belzoni acquired an astonishing collection of Egyptian antiquities, including many large sculptures now in the British Museum, and exhibited his collections in the Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly, contributing to the growing Egyptianising influence in architecture, design and interior decorating. Belzoni also held public unrollings of Egyptian mummies, which Thomas Pettigrew, then a young surgeon, attended and credited with sparking his interest in mummies.
By the end of the 19th century Egypt was a popular tourist destination for the British upper classes, driven by bestselling accounts such as Amelia Edwards’ A Thousand Miles up the Nile (1877) and made possible by the efforts of Thomas Cook and other tour operators. Travellers returned home with souvenir antiquities both real and fake, one of the most popular of which was a small ceramic jar of alleged mummy wheat, sealed with a fragment of painted ‘cartonnage’ from an ancient coffin.
Around the same time that Martin Tupper was spreading the word of mummy wheat, the British Association for the Advancement of Science commissioned a team of experts to study the vitality of seeds with the aim of founding a seed bank in Oxford. The committee used a variety of modern commercial seeds in their experiments, but they also tested samples of wheat, barley and lentils taken from Ancient Egyptian tombs, obtained with the help of the British Museum. The committee reported in 1842 and the results were disappointing: none of the Egyptian seeds germinated and John Stevens Henslow, a member of the committee, began to suspect that Tupper’s findings might have been fraudulent. He obtained and cultivated a sample of Tupper’s mummy wheat and found it to be a modern breed and not (as some had suggested) the breed known as ‘Egyptian Wheat’. Henslow concluded that the fault probably lay in the story of Tupper’s grain, obtained from Gardner Wilkinson’s broken pot in the British Museum via Thomas Pettigrew. This apparently conclusive debunking by some of the leading scientific authorities of the day did little, if anything, to dampen the popular enthusiasm for mummy wheat.
The myth spread from Tupper’s garden and into popular culture. Over the following years, it became a staple of religious sermons, a byword for fraudulent antiquities and a metaphor for dormant vitality. On the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 a journalist reflected that: ‘War is not a sudden outburst at any time. It may come with a surprise at last, but the seeds have been there for a long time, apparently dead, but alive like a grain of mummy wheat in an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus.’ Charles Dickens similarly used mummy wheat as a way of alluding to deep time and the ancient past, while his colleague, the journalist George Sala, listed it among the stolen or fake antiques to be found for sale on London’s Wardour Street, thinly disguised in his story as ‘Cawdor Street’. Mummy wheat (and other mummified plants) inspired some terrible poetry, including a long piece by Tupper himself, entitled ‘On A Bulbous Root (Which Blossomed, After Having Lain For Ages In The Hand Of An Egyptian Mummy)’. It included lines such as:
Didst ever dream of such a day as this,
A day of life and sunshine, when entranced
In the cold tomb of yonder shrivell’d hand?
Meanwhile, an 1854 poem entitled ‘The Mummy Wheat’ reflected the popular belief, vehemently denied by Pettigrew, that he had collected the wheat from within the wrappings of mummified bodies:
With careful fingers he removed
The swathings one by one,
And gazed at last upon the form
Of Egypt’s swarthy son.
And straight arose the fragrant scent
Of spices, oils, and balm,
And grains of corn went rolling down
From off the blackened palm,
Grains that perchance were treasured up
In Canaan’s time of dearth:
Dry as they were, we planted them,
In hope, beneath the earth.
This poem, like Edith Nesbit’s 1905 verse ‘Mummy Wheat’, uses the germination of long-dead grain as a metaphor for dormant or repressed feelings finally set free: a near-forgotten religious faith or, in Nesbit’s case, a persistent but secret love.
Aside from poets, the most enthusiastic promoters of the myth of mummy wheat were con men. In Canada in the 1930s, travelling grain salesmen preyed upon the desperation and religious faith of farmers, offering so-called mummy wheat at extremely high prices with the promise of miraculously large harvests. This market in mummy grain came to the attention of the press, politicians and mass-market grain-dealers, several of whom wrote to the British Museum hoping that they could debunk the mummy wheat myth comprehensively.
Give peas a chance
Alongside mummy wheat there was a parallel market in mummy peas. These came to prominence in 1845 when William Plate of the Syro-Egyptian Society claimed in a lecture that they were first found among the mummy wheat in Gardner Wilkinson’s broken jar in the British Museum. According to Plate’s account, the sample of wheat that Pettigrew retrieved included three peas, which he gave to William Grimstone, an unscrupulous inventor of patent medicines. He in turn marketed them as ‘Grimstone’s Egyptian Peas’ at an exorbitant price, but the business was not a success and he soon found himself in a debtor’s prison. Like the myth of mummy wheat, the mummy pea industry survived into the 20th century, at least in Canada, where one farmer (described by a Canadian academic as a ‘sucker’) paid $25 for a single pea.
As more and more people claimed to have grown mummy wheat in their gardens and greenhouses, the British Museum and the Royal Botanic Garden were bombarded with queries. In response, the noted Egyptologist Samuel Birch instructed his staff at the British Museum to hold the official line: mummy wheat will not grow. In 1885 Birch died and was succeeded in his post at the British Museum by Wallis Budge, who would make the debunking of mummy wheat one of his lifelong goals.
The same year, the antiquarian Henry King-Parks conducted the first review of evidence for and against the vitality of mummy wheat, examining scientific studies and consulting leading experts such as William Carruthers of the Royal Agricultural Society, who wryly noted that the revival of mummy wheat was as unlikely as the revival of a human mummy. In response to Carruthers’ scepticism a more credulous writer argued that ‘Nobody can deny the suspended life of a toad in marble. If an organised being can, thus confined, revive, surely a seed might.’ Like mummy wheat, the survival of toads inside ancient solid stone was a popular Victorian myth that has somehow survived into the present.
Having dispensed with the scientific case for mummy wheat, King-Parks turned his attention to the root causes of the myth and placed the blame solidly at the feet of the Egyptians. Pots of mummy wheat were a popular tourist souvenir of Egypt and sceptics such as King-Parks and others often bemoaned ‘the thieving propensities of the Arabs and their untruthfulness’, noting that they were ‘a deceitful race’, ‘not only adepts at lying, but skilful manipulators of ancient sarcophagi’.
This virulently racist tone is echoed in a number of accounts of mummy wheat, but the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie took a more considered view. Writing in 1914 on mummy wheat, which he called ‘One of the most frequent questions asked about Egypt’, he described the practice of
dealers at Thebes making up little pots of corn to sell to tourists. A common little brown pot – quite worthless – has corn put in it, and a lid plastered over it; to be more attractive, the lid is sometimes a scrap of painted cartonnage. Then, shaking the pot, the dealer tells the tourist to listen to the rattle of mummy wheat. It is soon bought, and taken home to plant. A fresh belief in ‘real mummy wheat’ is the result, as the owner is certain that he took it out of a sealed pot himself.
Petrie drew on his many years of working in Egypt to explore other possible explanations, such as the contamination of antiquities stored in old tombs repurposed as modern granaries, or the accidental mixture of ancient and modern seeds when displayed to the public. He also conducted his own unsuccessful experiments with wheat and grape seeds taken from Roman-era Egyptian tombs. Reflecting on the widespread belief in mummy wheat, Petrie wondered whether gardeners were substituting modern seeds or plants to avoid disappointment ‘when the master returns with some corn from Egypt, gives an interesting account of the possibilities to his gardener, and hands over the seeds to be planted with the greatest care and every advantage’. Despite this thoughtful intervention, most critics of mummy wheat remained comfortable blaming the Egyptians, often in quite vile terms.
Sorting the wheat from the chaff
The popular belief in mummy wheat survived well into the 20th century, with the beleaguered staff of the British Museum receiving a steady stream of enquiries from cranks and enthusiasts. At the time of his death in 1934 Wallis Budge was a superstar of popular Egyptology, author of numerous books including The Mummy, The Book of the Dead, a series of travel guides and a book-length obituary of Mike, the grouchy and unpopular British Museum cat. A few months before his death at the age of 77 Budge wrote a letter to The Times, issuing a challenge to the ‘many well-informed men who still believe that ancient Egyptian wheat will germinate, and who resent any statement or proof to the contrary as a species of personal discourtesy’. To debunk mummy wheat, Budge sought a group of scholars, a recognised authority or learned society to test mummy wheat under laboratory conditions and record their findings in The Times.
He added that:
I am very glad to be able to say that I can supply the wheat, and I am prepared to devote a generous handful for experiment by any responsible authority … I should be glad to see some of it used by responsible people with the view of settling for everybody once and for all the question, ‘Will mummy wheat grow?’
Budge’s challenge was reported around the world, generating excited letters and cards requesting samples of the wheat. The seed scientist of the Peek Frean biscuit company (inventors of the Garibaldi biscuit and the Twiglet) even sent copies of their wheat vitality research to prove his credentials.
Wilfred Parker of the Official Seed Testing Station for England and Wales wrote to tell Budge that they, too, often received queries about mummy wheat and would, therefore, be happy to help. Parker tested samples of mummy wheat in a lab, a greenhouse and a field, all under careful experimental conditions. He reported in The Times that:
Sir Wallis Budge was good enough to send me a small sample of grain … At the end of 16 days in test, not only was every grain completely decayed, but a thick growth of mould had spread from them to the surrounding sand … Perhaps it is too much to hope that this evidence will finally dispose of the myth concerning the growth of seed which has lain for centuries in ancient tombs or temples, but if it serves to deter even a limited number of the public from wasting their money and their time (and, incidentally, the time of such institutes as my own) over speculations on or in such seed the investigation will not have been in vain.
Budge also received replies from members of the public, including one who claimed to have cultivated mummy peas and wanted to give mummy wheat a try and another who enclosed with his letter the libretto he had written for an Egyptian comic opera. But by the time many of these letters arrived at the museum, Budge was already dead and the legend of mummy wheat lived on. The New York Sun reported on Budge’s challenge rather pessimistically:
Why does the legend persist in the face of all this evidence? Merely because there is unmistakable evidence that wheat brought from modern Egypt and described as ancient has germinated … One more experiment, even though undertaken with certified ancient wheat from the store of so distinguished an Egyptologist as is Sir ERNEST, is not likely to dissipate a hardy legend. Failure of the experiment would be a pallid negative against the robust affirmative conviction of a tourist taken in by a wily guide.
Endless wheat and tons of hay
What made the belief in mummy wheat so popular and tenacious in the face of concerted efforts to debunk it? One important factor is religion, in particular the close links between Christianity and popular Egyptology traced by historians such as David Gange. Numerous accounts of mummy wheat refer to the ‘seven-eared wheat’ that allegedly grew on each stalk. This alludes to Pharaoh’s dream in Genesis 41: ‘And he slept and dreamed the second time: and, behold, seven ears of corn came up upon one stalk, rank and good.’ Seven-eared mummy wheat was displayed to the Newcastle Farmers’ Club in 1846, reported in the Manchester Guardian in 1885 and allegedly cultivated in New South Wales as late as 1927. Edith Nesbit’s poem ‘Mummy Wheat’, mentioned earlier, also describes the ‘sevenfold ears’ of wheat: Nesbit had become acquainted with Wallis Budge, who advised her on the historical accuracy of her novel, The Story of the Amulet, which she dedicated to Budge. Their friendship had blossomed into a brief love affair that ended unhappily and in the poem Nesbit reflects that: ‘Life shall bid us pluck gold sevenfold grain/ Grown from the love she bids us bury now.’
By the middle of the 20th century mummy wheat was a joke, a mainstay of books with titles such as Popular Fallacies: A Book of Common Errors alongside Caligula’s horse-consul and Lady Godiva’s naked ride through Coventry. As one commentator reflected:
The matter is perhaps not of great practical importance, and it has been long settled so far as the botanical world is concerned; but, though perhaps at the cost of disturbing long-cherished beliefs, it is as well to correct unfounded impressions. If ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand on the approach of danger, and if mummy wheat will not grow, it is better not to draw on them for illustrations, even if speeches and sermons may lose something that is familiar and picturesque by the omission.
From its spectacular emergence in the 1840s, the myth of mummy wheat was in steady decline for more than a century. As recently as 2002 seed scientists carried out experimental modelling of Egyptian tombs to see if they might provide insights into the design of modern seed banks, but they concluded that the wheat would all be dead within a century. It would be tempting to conclude that the myth of mummy wheat is dead, but horror movies are full of Egyptologists who made similar assumptions and came to grisly ends. The next scholar who seeks to debunk mummy wheat should approach it with caution, some amulets, a silver bullet and a wooden stake. But I still would not fancy their chances.
Gabriel Moshenska is Senior Lecturer in Public Archaeology at University College London.