Jarring clues to Tut’s white wine

Scientists studying jars recovered from King Tutankhamen’s tomb have extracted the first chemical evidence of white wine in ancient Egypt.

A team led by Maria Rosa Guasch-Jané of the University of Barcelona analyzed the chemical makeup of dried liquid residues on the inside surfaces of six jars from the boy-king’s tomb. The jars are now displayed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Residue in each jar contained tartaric acid, a chemical marker of grapes, the investigators report in the upcoming August Journal of Archaeological Science. One jar yielded dark residue that also displayed traces of syringic acid, a substance derived from the main pigment of red wine. The other jars served up yellow or pale-brown residues that lacked syringic acid. Those vessels must have held white wine, Guasch-Jané and her coworkers propose.

Two other jars from Tut’s royal grave previously analyzed by the same researchers contained red wine residue.

The new findings show that a jar bearing inscriptions that translate as “sweet wine” originally held white wine, the scientists say. Writing on another white wine container describes it as a gift to Tutankhamen from a prominent Egyptian official.

The oldest written accounts of white wines in Egypt date to the third century A.D., the scientists note. Tut ruled from 1332 B.C. to 1322 B.C., dying under mysterious circumstances at around age 18.

Intriguingly, a red wine vessel was at the west wall of Tut’s burial chamber and a white wine container was at the opposite wall. The researchers plan to investigate whether that arrangement held symbolic meaning for ancient Egyptians concerned about the afterlife and rebirth of their rulers.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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