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  • Immortal Meals #27: The Honey Baby March 16, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    egyptian jar

    It is a story still told in hushed voices by archaeologists and classicists. Here is a recent version by Ken Albala from his (very good) lecture series on the history of food.

    So there is this revealing story of this group of Egyptologists and they find this perfectly sealed jar of honey and they open the thing up and they smell and they figure ok let’s see if it is still good. The decide to take a taste and another guy tastes it and it turns out to be really fine and there they are eating these spoonfuls of the honey until one guy notices a little hair on the spoon and so they dip down further into the bottom of the jar and they find a perfectly preserved human baby at the bottom… Eugh!

    Beach has come across this story in different forms. It has all the signs of an academic urban legends. And, in fact, Snopes got to this one before us and did a good job of ripping off the bark. The story first appears in modern times in 1893 in a CUP book E.A. Wallis-Budge, The Mummy: Chapters on Egyptian Funereal Archaeology where it is ascribed though not to a group of Egyptologists, but to a thirteenth century writer. Snopes does not though quote the original that is only available in Arabic or French. As Beach’s Arabic is pretty weak (ahem) here is the French. It was translated by the famous orientalist Silvestre de Sacy. The man who inter alia gave a credible etymology for Assassin (another post another day)

    Quelques-uns de ces cadavres sont renfermés dans des cercueils de fortes planches de bois de figuier-sycomore; d’autres ont des cercueils de pierre, soit marbre, soit granit; enfin, il en est qui se trouvent enfermés dans des jarres pleines de miel. Un homme sûr m’a raconté qu’étant une fois occupés, lui et d’autres personnes, à rechercher des trésors dans le voisinage des pyramides , iis trouvèrent une cruche bien scellée; l’ayant ouverte,et ayant reconnu quelle contenoit du miel, ils se mirent à en manger. L’un d’eux remarqua un cheveu qui s’étoit collé à son doigt; il le tira , et l’on vit paraître, un petit enfant dont tous les membres étoient encore adhérens, dont le corps sembloit avoir conservé sa fraîcheur, et qui portoit sur lui quelques bijoux et de riches ornemens [199].

    Some of the bodies are enclosed in strong planked coffins made of sycamore fig; others have stone coffins, either marble or granite; finally, there are those who are sealed in jars of honey. A reliable [?] man told me that, once he and some others went to look for treasures around the pyramids, and they found a still sealed jar; having opened and having recognized that it contained honey, they began to eat it. One of them noticed a hair that was stuck on her finger; he took it, and there came up a small child whose members were still attached, whose body seemed to have retained its freshness, and which carried jewelry and rich ornaments. [199]

    The story is credible in as much as babies were buried in jars in ancient Egypt, though the use of honey seems to have been rare.

    It would be interesting to see whether this story or others like it can be traced further back. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    25 Mar 2016: Lehmansterms writes in with other ancient foods, ‘I don’t have the actual cite at my fingertips, but after Pompey was killed by some over-enthusiastic Caesar supporters as soon as he arrived in Egypt, fleeing the defeat of his Optimate forces at Pharsalus, I have read that his head was delivered to Julius Caesar preserved in a jar of honey (J.C. said on seeing the face that he sincerely regretted that this fate had befallen his erstwhile friend and fellow triumvir). Honey’s seemingly infinite “shelf-life” and value as a preservative (microorganisms cannot, as I understand it, eat or survive in honey) was well understood in antiquity. I have also heard of bronze-age era wax-sealed crocks of honey found by peat clampers in British or Irish bogs which, aside from having become crystalline, was declared to be perfectly good and edible. Of course, I’m sure you have heard of the 19th century Explorers’ Club Mammoth dinner at which meat from a mammoth recovered from its 100+ century entombment in Russian (or maybe Scandinavian?) permafrost was served – and declared “edible”. I suspect it might have been just a trifle gamey – a mammoth trapped in summer-softened permafrost would not be “flash frozen” and would have probably sat there for some weeks or months before being completely engulfed in the permafrost. I wonder what other instances might be cited in which long buried ancient “food” was consumed by those who discovered it. I seem to recall a scene in Solzhenitsyn – either Gulag Archipelago or Ivan Denisovich if I’m remembering correctly – in which a group of prisoners exiled in Siberia discover a mammoth while excavating in permafrost and immediately eat it. Whether this was an actual occurrence (quite believable in light of the evidently poor food standard in the Gulag) or something Solzhenitsyn adapted from the Explorer’s club mammoth dinner anecdote, I really don’t know. Solzhenitsyn’s point was that the prisoners in internal exile were so chronically hungry that they seized upon anything even remotely edible. Whether or not the canned goods abandoned on shelves in the Antarctic base camp of Scott’s failed and ultimately fatal expedition a century ago – and have also been declared good by someone brave enough to try opening a few cans – would quite qualify as ancient food, well, I guess it depends on your definition of antiquity.

    25 Mar 2016: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books ‘With regard to the Honey Baby, the same motif continues with “Tapping the Admiral:” the bodies of various naval notables being preserved in spirits to get them back to their home country for Christian burial. Here’s one:

    Conveying corpses in casks of spirits occasionally led to some embarrassing moments. Pakenham Preserved in Rum. A strange story comes from Chester county, in this state. It is said that the body of Gen. [Edward] Pakenham, who commanded the British in the attack on New Orleans in the War of 1812, is buried in that county and his grave has been found. The general’s body was said to have been placed in a cask of rum and sent to England. On its arrival there, it was through mistake, not even opened, but shipped again, this time to Charleston. Reaching this city it was sent to McMillen, who kept a general stock of groceries and liquors. There a spigot was placed in the barrel and the boys who had returned from the war would congregate around the store, take large potations of the good old Jamaica rum and tell their exploits in the war. After the rum was exhausted the head of the cask was knocked out and the body of a man was found therein. The news spread like wildfire and the boys gathered to inspect the body. Several of them had been to New Orleans and had seen Gen. Pakenham, and at once identified it as being no less a corpse than that of the general. The body was enclosed in a coffin and buried near the store. Mr. Austin now owns the property. He lives a few miles from Rossville, Chester county. Until recently there were still living some of those who helped to drink the rum and who identified the body. Charleston Cor. New York Tribune. The Topeka [KS] Daily Capital 31 January 1888: p. 7

    I believe that John Newbery of the Newbery Prize, also died at sea and was brought back in a cask of spirits, some of which was drunk by the unwary. Then there is THIS little gem:

    A cask containing mutilated remains of a human, was found floating in the Ohio river at Ironton, and some of the Irontonian wine-guzzlers, seeing the reddened water oozing from the bung-hole, thinking it was wine, drank it. How their stomachs felt after opening the barrel can be better imagine than described. Portsmouth [OH] Times 27 December 1873: p. 2

    (To be fair, there was a bitter rivalry between Ironton and Portsmouth. This squib may reflect the communities’ sniping. I fervently hope this is an apocryphal tale.)

    30 May 2016, Enon: ‘Here’s some material related to your March 16th “Honey Baby” post: Mellified man, or human mummy confection, was a legendary medicinal substance created by steeping a human cadaver in honey. The concoction is mentioned only in Chinese sources, most significantly the Bencao Gangmu of the 16th-century Chinese pharmacologist Li Shizhen. [….] This process differed from a simple body donation because of the aspect of self-sacrifice; the mellification process would ideally start before death. The donor would stop eating any food other than honey, going as far as to bathe in the substance. Shortly, his feces (and even his sweat, according to legend) would consist of honey. When this diet finally proved fatal, the donor’s body would be placed in a stone coffin filled with honey. After a century or so, the contents would have turned into a sort of confection reputedly capable of healing broken limbs and other ailments. WP also notes: “Burmese priests have the custom of preserving their chief abbots in coffins full of honey.” While not candied or mellified, the use of human mummy in medicine and in making brown paint in Europe is well known from the late sixteenth century onward, probably due to a mistranslation of the Persian  word “mummia” or “mumiya” which means heavy petroleum or asphaltum, which was used as stuffing in Egyptian mummification and so gave mummies their name. The Wikipedia article  “Mumia” says  “Mummia was offered for sale medicinally as late as 1908 in the catalogue of E. Merck.” and cites “The Chemistry Of Paints And Painting“, by Arthur H. Church (text now online at chestofbooks.com, along with much similarly curious lore), which says in 1915: ” A London colourman informs me that one Egyptian mummy furnishes sufficient material to satisfy the demands of his customers for twenty years.”