Scientists get to the bottom of King Tut's wine stash

 

Barcelona Letter: Ivory bracelets, alabaster unguent jars and that famous gold funeral mask were among the 3,000 priceless treasures found buried with Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun - but the latest "find" amid the entombed stash is a little more earthly.

Scientists at Barcelona University (UB) have discovered that the 17-year-old pharaoh was partial to a glass of red wine.

Using the first technique that can determine the colour of fossil wine found in ancient jars, Egyptologist Maria Rose Gausch-Jané and professor of nutrition and food science Rosa M. Lamuela-Raventos have finally broken up an argument that has divided scientists and oenophiles since the tomb was discovered in 1922 - were the ancient wines found buried with the king made from white or red grapes?

"Wine in ancient Egypt was a drink of great importance, consumed by the upper classes and the kings," says Gausch-Jané. "Wine jars were placed in tombs as funerary meals. The New Kingdom wine jars were labelled with product, year, source and even the name of the vine grower, but they did not mention the colour of the wines they contained."

Hence the reason why the debate has raged - until now that is. To settle the argument, the researchers obtained samples of residues from five ancient Egyptian wine jars: three from the British Museum in London and two from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

One of the samples found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, which was discovered by Howard Carter in Western Thebes, Egypt, bore the following inscription: "Year 5. Wine of the House-of-Tut-ankh-Amun, Ruler-of-the-Southern-On, 1.ph.[ in] the Western River. By the chief vintner Khaa."

Wine jars from ancient Egyptian tombs often contain residues that can be analysed for the presence of wine-related compounds. So far, these analyses have focused on detecting tartaric acid, which is only found in grapes as a marker for wine, be it red or white.

Many analytical methods have been used to try to detect tartaric acid in residues from ancient wine jars, but with limited success.

The problem is that the residues are few and very precious, so sample sizes for analysis tend to be small.

The Spanish researchers were therefore looking to develop a more sensitive analytical method for detecting this tartaric acid. They also wondered whether they could use the same method to detect a compound in the residue that would indicate the colour of the wine. This secondary curiosity would prove to be the more successful in capturing the public's imagination.

The women analysed the samples for malvidin-glucoside, the major component that gives the red colour to young red wines. No other juice used in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean contains it. They noticed that when wine ages, this malvidin reacts with other compounds, forming more complex structures. Directing their efforts towards developing a tool for breaking down these structures, Ms Gausch-Jané and Ms Lamuela-Raventos eventually confirmed the colour of the fossil wine.

It is the first time ever such a method has been used to identify tartaric acid. In fact, it has never been used before on any archaeological sample, say the researchers, who plan to use their new technique in more extensive studies of other wine residues. This should yield some interesting findings because, they add, up to now such residues "have been barely uninvestigated".

The women's discovery has been met with great enthusiasm in both the science world and by the public here, where interest in the opulent history of the Egyptians has been the focus of fascination since the discovery of the Pharaoh's tomb.

While it is well known that wine production was widespread in the ancient kingdoms of Egypt, this new study proves that red wine was more popular during King "Tut's" reign, some 3,300 years ago.

"It is very exciting," says Ms Lamuela-Raventos from the Pharmacy Faculty of the UB, a brick and concrete building on Avinguda Joan XXIII on the outskirts of Barcelona.

"We should be presenting our findings and all of our work at the British Museum in July," she reveals, adding that their sponsors are, appropriately enough, the Spanish Wine Culture Foundation and Grupo Codorniu, makers of very fine Catalonian cava.

The wines buried with Tutankhamun have not just been used to gauge the preferred drink of the day; they have also inadvertently given us clues about how long the boy held the throne.

Clay seals on the wine jars found in his tomb record the king's regnal year when each wine was laid down. The highest recorded date is "Year 9", which suggests that the young ruler may have died in that year. Well, at least he had plenty of his favourite tipple to fortify him for the afterlife.