Around 2000 B.C., a baker in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes captured yeast from the air and kneaded it into a triangle of dough. Once baked, the bread was buried in a dedication ceremony beneath the temple of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II on the west bank of the Nile.
There the yeast slept like a microbial mummy for four millennia, until 2019. That’s when Seamus Blackley—a physicist and game designer best known for creating the Xbox—suctioned it up with a syringe and revived it in a sourdough starter.
Blackley, an amateur Egyptologist, often thinks about this ancient baker as he attempts to re-create the bread of 2000 B.C. “I’m trying to learn from you, my friend,” he tweeted, as if speaking across time to the baker. “Your voice will never be silent … May you have life, forever.”
This spring, as people worldwide sheltered at home to avoid spreading or catching the coronavirus, many home cooks cultivated their baking hobby or learned to make sourdough. Some housebound archaeologists took the trend to the next level by replicating baking methods from Roman Pompeii or Neolithic Turkey.
Blackley, for example, is collaborating with archaeologist Serena Love of the Australia-based Everick Heritage consultancy to bake bread in his backyard in California, using ancient techniques and what they believe is 4,000-year-old yeast. In March, he successfully baked a loaf in an earthen pit, similar to the way the Egyptians baked in the time of the pyramids. The bread was as dense as cake, with a rich, sour aroma and a comforting sweetness akin to brown sugar. “It’s magic,” Love says, “because he’s actually brought the past alive.”