Fresh Clips: Herbal Wines in Ancient Egypt

These herbs were used to create medicated wine.

| August/September 2009

Picture this: At the market, you run into an old friend you haven’t seen for a couple of years; he happens to be the head chef for the Pharaoh. He invites you over for a goblet of wine that evening. When you visit and he offers you white or red, you break out into a hacking cough.

“Wait,” he says, “have some of this instead. I made it for the Pharaoh’s son.” Out of an amphora in the storage room, he pours you a goblet of special wine—medicated wine, infused with terebinth, a turpentine-fragranced resin from a small Mediterranean tree called Pistacia terebinthus. “Sip this,” your friend instructs. “It will take care of that cough.”

As it turns out, wine was not just for indulgence at the evening dinner table in ancient Egypt—Egyptians added various herbs to create medicated wines. A new study by Patrick McGovern and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology provides biochemical evidence of medicinal herbs and tree resins dispensed in the grape wines of ancient Egypt. Researchers found the intriguing evidence inside jar number 156, one of 700 jars retrieved from the tomb of Scorpion I, who lived at the very beginning of Pharaonic Egypt, about 3150 b.c.—more than 5,000 years ago.

Until now, Egyptian papyri, such as the famous Ebers papyrus and others dating to the New Kingdom period (about 1550 B.C.), provided the primary evidence of medical practices and herbs used in ancient Egypt. Plant hieroglyphics in these documents have indicated that herbs, such as celery, onion, garlic, frankincense, myrrh, terebinth, bryony, coriander, cumin, dill, aloe, wormwood, mints, hyssop and sweet flag, were used to make medicated alcoholic beverages.

Now, recent advances in chemical analytical methods have yielded hard scientific evidence about the medicinal compounds in these ancient alcoholic beverages. Other exciting discoveries about the early uses of plants throughout the world are sure to follow. —

Did You Know?

Amphorae, tall, narrow-necked jugs, were used as wine vessels in centuries past. When retrieved from ancient ships wrecked in the Mediterranean, they offer little evidence of their contents. But if the amphorae were stored in a dry climate, such as the tomb of Egyptian royalty, there is a good chance researchers will find residues to be analyzed for information about ancient daily life. In 1990, a groundbreaking study by Patrick McGovern and a team at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology provided the first biochemical evidence that amphorae once contained wine.

For more information, see Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 13, 2009, “Ancient Egyptian Herbal Wines.”

Steven Foster is an author and photographer specializing in medicinal plants. 

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