Central to the ancient Egyptian diet were beer and bread. Both were consumed at every meal, by everyone, and no meal was considered complete without them. Nutritionally, bread was a valuable source of energy—of protein, starch, and trace nutrients, and it played much the same role as beer in the Egyptian economy and in ritual. Made from a wide variety of ingredients, the most abundant constituent of bread is normally a starch-rich material, most often a cereal ground into flour. Often, only a specific species of wheat is thought best, the bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), yet almost any cereal is suitable. With each grain or type of flour, the structure and texture of a loaf will vary considerably; all breads are not light, risen, or spongy.
The arid climate of Egypt has preserved a rich record of organic materials, including bread loaves. Several hundred specimens survive, mostly from funerary offerings, and these are now scattered in museum collections throughout the world. Among the earliest loaves are fragments from Predynastic graves of the Badarian culture. Although a direct source of evidence about ancient Egyptian bread and baking, these loaves have been surprisingly little studied. Many different breads and cakes were named in Egyptian documents, but their distinguishing features are in fact unknown. Scholars have suggested some possibilities, for example, that pesen-bread was a flat round loaf. The preserved loaves show that breads of the same shape were not always made from the same materials or the same recipe and, therefore, may not have had the same name. Some surviving hand-formed conical loaves were made from emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum), whereas one specimen was made largely from figs (Ficus carica). In contrast, various shapes and textures might be made from the same batch of dough.
Baking has usually been described from the evidence of artistic scenes. One of the most quoted examples is the relief in the fifth dynasty tomb of Ti at Saqqara. Also, Old Kingdom statuettes show baking activities, such as milling. Middle Kingdom models, such as that from Meketra's tomb, give a lively sense of a busy bakery, and several tombs at Beni Hasan contain bread-making scenes. One example of baking in a New Kingdom wall painting was found in the Theban tomb of Nebamun.
Bread making in ancient Egypt has been misunderstood by some Egyptologists, because the distinctive nature of the ancient staple wheat, emmer, differs in some properties from most wheats grown today. This includes bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), with ears that easily separate into chaff and grain when threshed; its traditional processing removes the chaff from the grain through winnowing and sieving. In contrast, emmer needs a more extensive treatment; when threshed, it breaks into packets called spikelets, each of which is a thick envelope of chaff tightly surrounding two kernels. Vigorous but careful processing is needed to break the chaff apart without damaging the grain kernels, before winnowing and sieving clean the chaff from the kernels.
Research based on archaeological, ethnographic, and experimental evidence has provided information on the way the ancient Egyptians processed emmer. Whole spikelets were moistened with a little water and pounded with wooden pestles in limestone mortars. The water made the spikelets pliable, so that the chaff shredded without crushing the grain kernels inside. Although this operation was not time consuming, ancient Egyptian mortars were small and several batches of spikelets had to be processed before enough freed kernels were produced to make bread for a family. The damp mixture of freed grain kernels and broken chaff then had to be dried, probably by spreading the mass in the sunshine. This was followed by a series of winnowing steps, which removed the fine chaff, and by sieving, which removed the heavier pieces. The final fragments of chaff still had to be picked out by hand.
The clean, whole grain was then milled into flour, by the use of flat grinding stones called saddle querns. From Neolithic to Old Kingdom times, they were placed on the floor, making a laborious process. According to tomb scenes, by the Middle Kingdom the querns were raised onto platforms, called quern emplacements, and examples of some have been excavated at a few New Kingdom sites; they were much easier, more comfortable, and perhaps quicker to use. Experimental work with ancient querns has shown that no grit was needed to aid the milling process, as is sometimes suggested, and flour textures could be precisely controlled by the miller.
In ancient Egypt, baking changed with time. An excavated Old Kingdom bakery at Giza demonstrated that heavy pottery bread molds were set in rows on a bed of embers to bake the dough placed within them. In the Middle Kingdom, square hearths were used, and the pottery molds were modified into tall, narrow, almost cylindrical cones. By New Kingdom times, a new oven type was introduced, a large open-topped clay cylinder encased in thick mud bricks and mortar; then flat disks of dough, perhaps leavened, were slapped onto the preheated inner oven wall. When baked, they peeled off and were caught before they could fall into the embers below.
New Kingdom tombs were especially well supplied with bread, and the loaves varied widely in size, shape, and decoration. Some were formed into recognizable shapes, such as fish and human figures; others were simple shapes, such as disks and fans. The dough textures of those loaves ranged from very fine to mealy. Whole or coarsely cracked cooked grains were often added to create a texture much like modern multigrain breads. The cereal grain used for flour was almost always emmer. Added barley (Hordeum vulgare), as flour of grains, is so rare that barley seems to have been accidentally mixed into dough in small amounts. Flavorings, such as coriander seeds (Coriandrum sativum) and dates (Phoenix dactylifera), were occasionally added. Yeast was added to some recipes, but leavening was not always used.
More research is needed to determine whether different breads were available to the various social classes. It seems reasonable to suppose that bread flavored with exotic ingredients was normally accessible only to the wealthy. Until bread has been recovered from arid settlement sites, tomb loaves will continue to inform mainly on funerary practices. Numerous remains of cereal-processing equipment and baking installations at settlement sites, however, have provided some developmental evidence for the preparation of ancient Egyptian bread.
- Breasted, J. H. J. Egyptian Servant Statues. New York, 1948. Has examples of many statuettes engaged in various baking activities, as well as Meketra's bakery/brewery model.
- Darby, William J., “Paul Ghalioungui, and Louis Grivetti.” Food: The Gift of Osiris. London and New York, 1977. Provides a general overview of baking, although it relies much on Greco-Roman sources; shows a good range of ancient desiccated loaves.
- Hillman, G. C. “Traditional Husbandry and Processing of Archaic Cereals in Modern Times: Part I, the Glume-wheats.” Bulletin on Sumerian Agriculture 1 (1984), 114–152. Detailed ethnographic information on the processing of emmer wheat.
- Kemp, B. J. Ancient Egypt. Anatomy of a Civilization. London, 1989. Includes a discussion of the administration of baking and bread as rations.
- Samuel, Delwen. “Ancient Egyptian Cereal Processing: Beyond the Artistic Record.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 3.2 (1993), 276–283. Summary of ancient Egyptian flour production, outlining the use of archaeological, ethnographic, and experimental research.
- Samuel, Delwen. “Investigation of Ancient Egyptian Baking and Brewing Methods by Correlative Microscopy.” Science 273 (1996), 488–490. Presents the microscopy analysis of bread loaves and their interpretation; discusses the relationship of bread and beer.
- Wild, Henri. “Brasserie et panification au tombeau de Ti.” Bulletin de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale 64 (1966), 95–120, plates 9–11. A detailed and balanced consideration of artistic and documentary sources on ancient Egyptian baking; not restricted to Old Kingdom evidence.