The world’s oldest surviving piece of cheese is over 3,000 years old and archaeologists think it was probably spreadable

Think Stilton has a high funk factor? Then spare a thought for the archaeologists who discovered a 3,300 year old cheese inside an Ancient Egyptian tomb.

In 2013, researchers were excavating the tomb of Ptahmes, who was once the mayor of Memphis. The tomb, which was first discovered in 1885, was then lost to the desert sands for over a century before its rediscovery in 2010.  While many of the ancient treasures had been already been removed during earlier excavations, archaeologists discovered something even more extraordinary – and arguably even more precious! – hidden inside a broken vessel.

At first, it was unclear what the lumpy white substance could be. Extensive chemical analysis revealed the presence of proteins consistent with milk from the Bovidae family (think cow, goat or sheep), and dated it to 3,300 years old, making it the oldest solid cheese sample ever discovered!

How old is cheese?

Evidence of Egyptian cheesemaking has been found in murals on tomb walls and would have been eaten along with other tasty bits including bread, lentils and beer, and has likely been on scene almost from the start of animal domestication.

In fact, right across Europe and Asia, the evidence for cheesemaking goes way back, but more often than not, the evidence is based on depictions of cheesmaking, or the remnants of cheesemaking equipment, rather than the cheese itself – because if it doesn’t get gobbled up, it quickly decomposes.

In 2012, archaeologists in Poland found 7,000-year-old pottery that were once used as ancient cheese strainers, used to make a kind of primitive cottage cheese.

And in 2014, archaeologists in China found some 3800 year old  ‘cheese’ buried with female mummies in Xinjiang. But unlike this sample, however, it was kefir cheese—a liquid dairy product that is usually drunk, rather than eaten.

Ancient Egyptian spreadable cheese

But it’s not all cheesetastic. Analysis of the cheese in Ptahmes tomb revealed a strain of bacteria that would probably have caused any eaters severe (ahem) tummy troubles.  Historians believe that the cheese would have had a moist, spreadable consistency that would have spoiled quickly in the desert heat.

So next time you tuck into a bit of Camembert, think about the ancient Egyptians doing something quite similar… and be glad yours is fresh!

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Erin McDonald

Erin McDonald

Erin first came digging with us in New York. She promptly decided to quit her job, and pursue her dream of becoming an archaeologist. She's now doing her Masters in Early Medieval Archaeology at Durham Uni, and hasn't looked back since!

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