The ancient Egyptian pots and jugs at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts only look empty.
Video game designer Seamus Blackley thinks they’re full of dormant organisms — yeast spores that can be resurrected and fermented, to make the kind of bread and beer that will let us party like it’s 1999 BC.
Blackley, whose credits include leading the team that designed the Xbox, talked the MFA into letting him extract dormant yeast spores from a 4,500-year-old loaf of Egyptian bread the museum had in its antiquities collection. He then used the ancient yeast to make modern bread. And according to Blackley, the stuff’s delicious.
“The aroma and flavor are incredible,” Blackley wrote on Twitter on Monday. “It’s really different, and you can easily tell even if you’re not a bread nerd. This is incredibly exciting, and I’m so amazed that it worked.”
Perhaps because it seems like a weird mashup of “Jurassic Park” and “The Mummy,” Blackley’s experiment blew up on Twitter. As of Thursday, it’s been shared nearly 29,000 times.
“Usually, you make something and only other nerds appreciate it. But I think this bread is different enough that other people realize it,” Blackley said in a telephone interview. “It’s a little bit surprising.”
It’s still not quite certain that the ancient yeast was responsible for Blackley’s bread, or whether naturally occurring yeasts gave it the necessary boost. His colleague, Richard Bowman, a doctoral candidate in biology at the University of Iowa, said it will take two months of DNA sequencing to be absolutely sure. But Bowman thinks Blackley has probably got it right. “I’m about 60 percent sure that this is an ancient yeast,” he said.
Blackley graduated from Tufts University in 1990 with a degree in physics and then developed video games at Looking Glass Studios in Cambridge, which created popular titles like “System Shock” and “Flight Unlimited.” He joined Microsoft Corp. in 1999, working on the launch of the original Xbox, and now lives in California.
Along the way, Blackley became an amateur Egyptologist with a working knowledge of hieroglyphics. When a friend sent him a sample of yeast that he claimed was more than 5,000 years old, Blackley wondered if traces of ancient yeast could be collected from old Egyptian beer jugs and bread molds.
He wasn’t the only one. In May, a team of Israeli scientists said that they’d brewed beer using yeast isolated from a 5,000-year-old Egyptian beermaking pot. They also made beers from 2,800-year-old Syrian yeast and a 2,400-year-old sample from ancient Israel.
But the Israelis used a method that damaged the original artifacts. Blackley wanted to do the same research without harming the ancient items. That way, scientists would be able to sample a far larger number of artifacts from all over the world.
Blackley joined forces with Serena Love, an archaeologist at the University of Queensland in Austrialia, who studies ancient Egyptian beer-brewing methods. She used her academic connections to help Blackley get access to the artifacts at the museums when he came to Boston in July. Meanwhile, Bowman provided Blackley with a kit for gathering samples. Blackley applied a nutrient solution to small areas of each artifact, as a way of “waking up” the yeast. He then used a syringe to suck up the material and place it in test tubes.
Blackley tested ancient bread molds and beer jugs in the collections of the Peabody Museum and at the MFA. He also sampled a loaf of bread that had been excavated from an Egyptian tomb in 1924 and acquired by the MFA in 1937.
Peter Der Manuelian, director of Harvard’s Semitic Museum, said that many affluent Egyptians were buried with supplies of bread, meat, and beer for their enjoyment in the afterlife. The meat and beer are long gone, but Egypt’s dry climate is ideal for preserving loaves of bread.
“It just hardens, solidifies,” Der Manuelian said. “There’s actually quite a bit of it in museums around the world.”
Blackley sent most of his samples to Bowman, who will analyze their DNA. But Blackley cheated a little. He hung onto the samples taken from the bread loaf and began cultivating it at home. He created a sourdough starter by mixing it with olive oil and flour made from barley and einkorn, an old-fashioned variety of wheat that was common in the ancient world. In about a week, Blackley had developed enough starter to begin making bread using barley, einkorn, and another old-school grain called kamut.
Blackley was delighted with the resulting loaf. And so far, he’s suffered no ill effects, whether from bacterial contamination or from ancient Egyptian curses.
On the other hand, there’s no proof that the yeast in his bread is truly from ancient Egypt. Bowman said it probably is the real thing, since random yeast spores aren’t generally floating around in museums. But the provenance of the yeast will only be certain once Bowman has sequenced its DNA genome.
“The excessive interest in the press is probably a tad early,” said Bowman. “We haven’t verified anything yet.”
Blackley tweeted that even if the yeast is right, he’ll need more research to make sure that he’s making bread exactly the same way as the ancient Egyptians did.
“But,” he added, “it’s not a bad start!”