In 1885, archaeologists discovered an Egyptian tomb, but after a sandstorm, it was lost again. In 2010, the site was unearthed for a second time, and researchers learned it belonged to Pthames, a mayor of Memphis. Though grave robbers stole the most obviously-valuable loot, several pottery jars remained behind. One of them contained a surprising find: cheese.
The white mass dates back to the 13th century, making the cheese the oldest ever found. Unfortunately, all that time and exposure to the desert, which has an alkaline effect, changed the chemicals in the cheese. Studying it was tricky, and at first, no one was sure what exactly the mass was. A team at Italy’s University of Catania came up with a new way of analyzing the proteins. Pieces of the cheese were dissolved and their protein was isolated and purified. Scientists then analyzed them using methods like “mass spectrometry” and “liquid chromatology.”
The 2018 results revealed a cheese made from goat, sheep, and African buffalo milk. It would have likely had a texture similar to chevre, but with a way more acidic taste. Tests also showed that the cheese contained a bacteria known to cause brucellosis, an infection you get from contact with unpasteurized dairy. Symptoms include weight loss, fatigue, joint and muscle pain, and fever. Eating the cheese today is obviously ill-advised, but apparently having a taste back when it was first made would also have been dangerous.
From murals, we’ve known that Egyptians were making cheese as far back as 2000 B.C. Before the Pthames tomb sample, the world’s oldest cheese was found in China on the bodies of mummies. It was made by mixing milk, bacteria, and yeast, a method which is used today to create kefir. Experts believe it might have been intended as a snack for the afterlife. The cheese found in Egypt was also meant for the mummy’s spirit to enjoy.