Before the clockwork scarab, before the fairy ring of mushrooms, the idea for FLIGHT OF THE SCARAB started fermenting when I read an article about scientists collecting ancient yeast from Egyptian pottery and bringing it back to life in the form of bread and beer.

Imagine baking bread or brewing beer with yeast that lay dormant for millennia, preserved in the cracks of ancient Egyptian pottery…

So where’s the truth in the tale I spun?

It begins with archeological discoveries made near Luxor, Egypt. Petrie, a famous Egyptologist (often referenced in the Amelia Peabody books) was the first to report that he’d discovered beer residues in jars. But it wasn’t until the 1989 discovery of a large-scale brewery operating 5,500 years ago that there was (or could be) an in-depth analysis of such residues. When the pottery was studied, they found caramelized sugars, grain debris and traces of alcoholic fermentation. 

And that was where matters stood until 2019 when Seamus Blackley (with the help of a few archaeologists and museums) decided to see if they could collect this ancient yeast from the pores of ancient pottery and bring it back to life. Success! Samples were sent off for genetic sequencing (DNA and RNA that demonstrated they had indeed collected ancient strains), but one sample was set aside to turn into a bread starter.

He fed this ancient yeast sample Einkorn wheat, an ancient grain, and waited. It began bubbling like a proper bread starter. Then, using barley and Einkorn wheat, he baked. With modern yeast, such bread generally results in flat and dense loaves, but using this revived ancient yeast strain, the loaves were soft, well-risen and “cake-like” with a different “new” aroma described as “sweeter” than modern sourdough.

Why cake-like? Einkorn, spelt and emmer (ancient grains) have a higher percentage of albumins and globulins than they do of gliadins and glutenins. It’s these last two proteins that give us gluten and that characteristic stretchy network that builds with kneading for today’s soft, chewy bread. If you’re curious what kneaded ancient grains look like, check out this article complete with photos.

Do we know any ancient Egyptian recipes? Not exactly. But archaeologists have done their best to reconstruct one from hieroglyphics. Check out this recipe if you’re interested. Do we know how the bread was baked? Yes. It was a process called “stack heating” using clay pots. The dough goes into a heated pot, another pot is put on top, and the entire thing is buried in the ground and covered with ash and charcoal. 

What’s up with mummy wheat? 

In the 19th century sensationalist claims were made that wheat grains found in the tombs of Egypt could not only be planted and grown, but that they were ridiculously fertile. A profitable claim as such grains were sold for exorbitant prices. Later experiments proved these claims false (wheat grains are only good to germinate for ~25 years).  

What about beer?

An even more popular topic. After all it’s a very human thing, asking the question “if we ferment this, will it make a nice alcoholic drink?” Potatoes. Beets. Rice. Grapes. The list is long. But for the sake of relative brevity, we’ll stick to beer.

Beer. Popular for its intoxicating effect, but, especially in times past, for alcohol’s ability to kill all the “wee beastie” pathogens that teamed in unpurified water.

In 2011, Patrick McGovern, archaeologist, was asked to lecture about how ancient Egyptians made beer. But he took it much, much further, diving deep into research to approximate an ancient Egyptian beer using modern equivalents. He’s published his story and recipe here. And Dogfish went so far as to produce Midas Touch, the first beer of their Ancient Ales.

And he’s far from alone now. Multiple breweries working with archaeologists around the globe have produced so many beers and ales using ancient ingredients that it’s now possible to call the field “beer archaeology”. Check out this comprehensive article on the topic.

What is stone beer brewing?

It’s a technique developed in response to the expense, and resulting scarcity, of metal vessels for beer production. By heating rocks and submerging them in wooden vessels, the Latvians (and other countries) found a way to brew beer without the need for expensive equipment. Read this traveler’s blog post for photos of their experience using this technique in Latvia!

Green, glowing beer?

I couldn’t resist. Yes, with our knowledge of the jellyfish’s green fluorescent protein and the ability to geneticaly engineer DNA, it didn’t take that long before someone popped the sequence into a yeast… and brewed beer. You can even buy a kit to make it yourself.

With historical and scientific studies intersecting with culinary artistry, these topics felt like the perfect mix for a story that would bring together the past and present with the magic of fermentation. Enter Julia, pub owner and archeologist at the British Museum who would like to bring her studies of ancient bread and beer to life…

Flight of the Scarab by Anne Renwick, a Steampunk Gaslamp Fantasy Romance

About Anne

Though USA TODAY bestselling author Anne Renwick holds a Ph.D. in biology and greatly enjoyed tormenting the overburdened undergraduates who were her students, fiction has always been her first love. Today, she writes steampunk romance, placing a new kind of biotech in the hands of mad scientists, proper young ladies and determined villains.

Anne brings an unusual perspective to steampunk. A number of years spent locked inside the bowels of a biological research facility left her permanently altered. In her steampunk world, the Victorian fascination with all things anatomical led to a number of alarming biotechnological advances. Ones that the enemies of Britain would dearly love to possess.

To chat with Anne, stop by on Facebook or join the Department of Cryptobiology Facebook group. You can also join her newsletter list to have cover reveals, sneak peaks, sales and giveaways delivered straight to your inbox.

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