Honey in the pyramids
Article published on 18 February 2015

by Nali

Maybe because of the present infatuation for “natural medicine”, honey is often presented as a kind of panacea, able to cure even cancer [1].

To these health benefits, honey is said to add another virtue: the ability to stay preserved indefinitely. At least that idea is very present on the internet, including on some very serious websites like that of the Smithsonian:

Modern archeologists, excavating ancient Egyptian tombs, have often found something unexpected amongst the tombs’ artifacts: pots of honey, thousands of years old, and yet still preserved. Through millennia, the archeologists discover, the food remains unspoiled, an unmistakable testament to the eternal shelf-life of honey.

On numerous websites, the honey found in Tutankhamun’s grave is even said to have been still edible:

The ancient Egyptians kept domestic bees and sealed pots of honey were found in the graves of Pharaohs such as Tutankhamun. The honey was still edible. So ’Use By Dates’ on honey could say 5000 AD, since the honey in Tutankhamun’s tomb was 3000 years old! (Source)

However, there is some doubt concerning the place where this edible honey was found: in Tutankhamun’s grave? or maybe in the pyramids?

It is interesting to note that when archaeologists discovered pots of honey in the ancient Egyptian pyramids, the honey was still edible. Indeed still edible after many thousands of years. (Source)

What are the real historical facts?

There is no doubt that the ancient Egyptians have produced and used honey for a long time. The earliest depiction of honey and bee-keeping comes from the Temple of the Sun (Ne-user-re, Abu Ghorab), 2400 BC.

But, was any edible honey ever found?

In the case of Tutankhamun’s tomb, some jars which used to contain honey have been found in it in 1922. I couldn’t find any analysis of the content, but it seems the inscriptions on the jars actually mention honey.
But the content was long gone…

To find any mention of preserved honey, one has to go back to 1905, February 12th, on the occasion of the first visit of the tomb of Yuya and Tjuyu (KV46), by the archaeologists Theodore M. Davis, Arthur Weigall and Gaston Maspero. Yuya and Tjuyu were buried circa 1375 BC, and are, coincidentally, believed to be Tutankhamun’s grand parents. More about this tomb here:

Among the artefacts found in the tomb, two alabaster vases are interesting, items #51105 and #51106.

The three visitors give a very similar version. Arthur Weigall, in a letter to his wife, between 14th and 16th of February 1905, writes:

In one corner were some jars of wine, the lids tied on with string; & among them was one huge alabaster jug full of honey still liquid. When I saw this I really nearly fainted. The extraordinary sensation of finding oneself looking at a pot of honey as liquid & sticky as the honey one eats at breakfast and yet three thousand five hundred years old, was so dumbfounding that one felt as though one was mad or dreaming. (Source, page 297)

Same story for Gaston Maspero, on the 29th March of the same year, but with a quite poetic version:

(Source : Causeries d’Égypte, 1907)

One of the vases that we opened contained pasty oil, another one honey almost liquid which still had its smell. As it laid forgotten and uncovered on one of the stairs, near the entrance of the hall, a marauding wasp, lost in the Valley of Kings, came greedily lapping around the neck; it took blows with a handkerchief to prevent it from taking its share of the honey foraged more than three thousand years ago by ancient bees on the flowers of the Theban campaign.

And finally Theodore M. Davis’ version:

(Source : The tomb of Iouiya and Touiyou : the finding of the tomb, 1907)

From the neck of one of the vases hung shreds of mummy-cloth which had originally covered the mouth of the vase. Evidently the robber, expecting the contents to be valuable, tore off the cloth. Three thousand years thereafter I looked into the vase with like expectation; both of us were disappointed, for it contained only a liquid which was first thought to be honey, but which subsequently proved to be natron

In the same book, we can see pictures of the vases in the plates XXV and XXVI, and their description on pages 30 and 31.

Theodore M. Davis’ last sentence implies that the content wasn’t considered honey any more, and that will be confirmed in 1908. The tomb was first discovered by James Edward Quibell, who was away during the first visit, and Arthur Weigall replaced him as "Chief Inspector"; it was the same Arthur Weigall who was responsible for the publication of the inventory: Tomb of Yuaa and Thuiu (1908) https://openlibrary.org/books/OL14045561M/Tomb_of_Yuaa_and_Thuiu

The two alabaster vases are described page 49:

The results of the analyses are page 75 to 77.

Vase 51105:

Vase 51106:

This one contained mainly a mix of natron and of 8,70 % water, which may explain why it was still liquid in spite of its age.

What is natron? Natron is a mineral, abundant in Egypt. It was commonly used during the mummification process, and is still in use for cleaning or meat preservation. It is mostly a mix of hydrated sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate.

So the real explanation occurred three years after the discovery of the tomb KV46 (and was probably much less publicised than the discovery itself), a time sufficient for the urban legend of the "honey of the Pharaohs" to be born, as shown by the fact that even the reliable National Geographic fell in that trap in 1913:

(Source, page 999)

And, from "the honey of the Pharaohs" from the Valley of the Kings, to "the honey of the pyramids" a thousand years older, it’s a very small step...

But what about the reality concerning the “eternal” shelf life of honey? I couldn’t find any reliable example of “old honey” still edible. It seems it’s better to avoid keeping it more than 2 years.