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Forgotten Boxes Yield Harvest of Fruit and Grains From Tut’s Tomb

Times Staff Writer

In what scientists have called a major archeological find, a London graduate student has rediscovered a funeral wreath and a harvest of fruit and grains placed in the tomb of the Egyptian boy Pharaoh Tutankhamen more than 3,300 years ago.

The material, described by British scientists as a major development, was retrieved from a group of apparently forgotten cardboard boxes stored for more than 50 years at the Royal Botanic Gardens in the London suburb of Kew.

Specialists in the field of archeobotany say the grains and fruits, some of them not previously known to have existed in Egypt during the period, could generate important new evidence about agricultural practices and trade patterns of one of the world’s great civilizations.

Tutankhamen reigned as king of Egypt from 1361 to 1352 BC, and his burial chamber remained intact until it was discovered in 1922.

“Obviously, it is going to go around the world as one of those major finds,” said Grenville Lucas, assistant director at the Royal Botanic Gardens. “You can imagine the excitement it causes.”

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Gordon Hillman, an archeobotanist at the University College London’s Institute of Archeology, called the find “extremely significant.” It was Hillman’s student, 23-year-old Christian Tutundjian de Vartavan, who uncovered the material.

“Egyptian archeology has tended to concentrate on the life of royalty, but this material is filled with clues that can help piece together details about the life of ordinary people,” he said.

Hillman said the find contained some 25 plant food species and more than 30 weed species.

“What we have found will tell us a lot about the diet and the crop species in Egypt at that time,” Hillman said.

He said, for example, that sesame seeds found represent the earliest ever from the Nile River region and could suggest cultural contacts with India, where such crops are known to have been domesticated during an earlier period.

Millets, barley, black cumin seeds, coriander and watermelon seeds were also among the finds.

Clue to Famines

The weed species provided evidence of how crops were irrigated and how they were harvested, while the identification of about 10 different types of insects, including weevils, found among the grains indicated the possible causes of famines and crop failures, Hillman said.

Tutundjian identified the material in connection with his work for a master’s degree in archeobotany at the University College London’s Institute of Archeology.

After seeking Egyptian plant remains for work in connection with degree research, he was handed some 30 4-by-8-inch cardboard boxes containing the material. Tutundjian, who holds an undergraduate degree in Egyptology, became intrigued by the series of unusual numbers on the boxes, which had been retrieved from a storage room at the Royal Botanic Gardens.

He began pressing staff at the Kew facility about the origins of the material and, with the aid of a scientist there, discovered the samples were retrieved from the Tutankhamen tomb in 1922 by British archeologist Howard Carter.

Carter had taken the material on long-term loan from the Egyptian government, then turned it over to a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, who died in the late 1930s before publishing any explanation of the find.

The ancient remains have apparently languished in the cardboard boxes ever since.

Hillamn said when he and Tutundjian found the remarkably well-preserved portions of a funeral wreath made of carefully woven olive leaves and blue cornflowers, they both simply stared in awe.

The material was apparently taken by Carter in a series of one-scoop samples from less than 25% of the 116 baskets and 12 other containers placed in the royal tomb to sustain the Pharaoh during his afterlife.

Starting Point

The bulk of this material remains in Egypt, either at the Cairo Museum or the Dokki Agricultural Museum, also in Cairo, but, according to Hillman, has never been identified or studied in any detail by archeobiologists there.

“I think what has happened here might get them started,” he said.

He said the material found at Kew still belongs to the Egyptian government, but he hoped to retain it, at least temporarily, to conducted additional studies.

“After all, that is what it was brought here for in the first place,” he said.


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