Many gardeners know that cool, dry, dark places are ideal for long-term seed storage. Many gardeners cite the seeds found in ancient Egyptian pyramids as evidence. According to the popular story, these seeds, after lying dormant for thousands of years, sprouted when planted.
Most scientists would agree on the perfect conditions for storing seeds. However, most deny that seeds found in Egyptian tombs have ever germinated.
The First Mummy Seeds
The story that seeds from pyramids are sometimes viable was born in mid-1800s England, a time and place in the grips of mummy mania. Archeologists, both amateur and professional, were unwrapping mummies at every opportunity without compunction. In this process, they frequently uncovered small surprises rolled up with the bodies, including seeds. Seeds were important in Ancient Egyptian funeral rites because they symbolized burial and resurrection.
The Gardeners’ Chronicle of London published the first story of ancient Egyptian seed germination in 1843. The Gardeners’ Chronicle reported that some wheat seeds were found in the hand of a mummy unwrapped in London. A crop was raised from one, and the next generation of seeds was then available at exorbitant prices.
In 1857, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine ran an article by T.E. Thorpe on wheat, noting its exceptional longevity and mentioning this incident as an example. The article also observed that the wheat tillered prolifically—“fifteen stems…sprung from a single seed.” For comparison, note that most American farmers hope for two or three tillers per plant; British sources (navigate to page 10) note that under ideal conditions up to 35 tillers are possible. Thorpe went on to speculate:
From this great increase it is naturally suggested that wheat now grown is a degenerate class of the same species formerly common in Egypt; else, it is argued, how could the Egyptians have supplied the Assyrian, Grecian, and Roman empires from their superabundance above their own wants?
A separate instance came to light in 1844. In this case, the story was that Thomas Pettigrew, a famous unroller of mummies, had found some wheat and pea seeds in a vase in a sarcophagus in the British Museum. All of the wheat failed to germinate, but W. Grimstone of the Herbary in Highgate reportedly managed to coax a few of the peas to life.
In the early 1850s, or possibly even earlier, more reports surfaced of Egyptian plants sprouting. In this case, Lord Lindsay of Britain claimed that he had found a root in the hand of a mummy he had unwrapped in Egypt. The root subsequently grew into a dahlia.
In 1856, a Dr. Deck supposedly received part of a dried resurrection flower from a group of Arabs. These Arabs claimed to have taken the flower from a mummified priestess about ten years before. Dr. Deck found that the resurrection flower could revive when wet, albeit temporarily.
Scientists Weigh In
Scientists began experimenting with seed viability as early as the mid-1800s. Most researchers could keep their seeds alive for only 10 to 15 years at the most. They theorized that the maximum lifespan of a seed was 30 years.
In June 1921, the New York Times ran an article on the reaction of British scientists to a claim then current in America that morning glory seeds found in the hand of a mummified girl sprouted. J.L. North, curator of the Royal Botanic Society, listed three reasons for doubting the claim before proposing an alternative theory:
In the first place, though grains were frequently buried with a mummy to provide food in case the corpse came to life, they were always baked to prevent germination. We have in our museum some such grains, burned black. Secondly, the morning glory is a convolvulus. The plant inhabits moist districts and not dry localities like Egypt. Thirdly, no seeds of the convolvulus last a very long time.
What really happened, I think, is that seeds of the morning glory happened to be in the soil in which the ancient grains were planted, and developed in normal fashion.
All three of North’s myth-busting statements are now known to be false:
- There is relatively little record of pre-baked seeds in tombs. In fact, the Egyptians actually planted some seeds, such as coriander, in tombs and allowed them to germinate. (However, some Egyptian seeds carbonized from old age.)
- A plant remarkably like a convolvulus (probably a bindweed, still a problem in Egypt today) often appears in Ancient Egyptian art. The fact that a convolvulus can regenerate itself from just a small fragment of root may have symbolized rebirth in Ancient Egyptian culture.
- Most farmers and gardeners with the misfortune of being familiar with weeds in the bindweed family know that convolvulus seeds can last for incredible lengths of time, even under suboptimal conditions. Scientists have demonstrated that field bindweed seeds can live for a minimum of 50 years, outstripping other noxious weeds.
In 1933, experimenters tried to sprout some wheat from Egyptian tombs using every possible method, including an effort to use colored glass. All efforts were in vain. The seeds merely crumbled to dust.
Science and Seeds
Scientists say that all viable seeds that come out of the tombs today are probably rodent-borne interlopers. Other instances may be hoaxes that salesmen love to market to tourists.
Unfortunately, scientific trials of seed longevity rarely last for any considerable length of time. Most experiments end after 20 or 30 years. Furthermore, no one botanist can continue the work alone, assuming the working lifespan of a botanist is 50 years at maximum.
What scientists have determined is useful, however. As a general rule, weed and agricultural seeds last the longest. Barley seeds, for instance, remained viable at 123 years of age in one study. Vegetable seeds are rarely viable for more than a few years under normal storage conditions. When carefully sealed and stored at cold temperatures they can remain viable for at least 20 years. Some species can last 50 (beets) or even 60 years (tomatoes).
How Long Can a Seed Live?
Theories on the absolute maximum lifespan of seeds were challenged when a Japanese botanist uncovered lotus seeds in a layer of peat at the bottom of a dry lake bed in Manchuria. After the find, the seeds went to a museum, where they lay dormant for at least a decade. When resarchers finally conducted a germination test, nearly all of the lotus seeds sprouted.
Scientists were astonished. The peat in the lake bed dated back to the Ice Age, so they thought. Evolutionists place the end of the Ice Age at 10,000 years ago at the latest. Creationists frequently suggest that the Ice Age occurred shortly after the Flood, probably about 4,000 years ago—still a very long time for a seed. Based on carbon dating results, however, scientists discounted the possibility of the seeds being a thousand years old and suggested that they were more recent interlopers.
Another incredible resurrection of old seeds came in 2005. In 1973, archaeologists recovered seeds from the (then) extinct Judean date palm at the ancient fortress of Masada, the site of the last stand of the Jewish Zealots against invading Romans in A.D. 73. Troubled times resulting from Roman and then Arab occupation reduced the cultivation of the tree, leading to its extinction around A.D. 500.
At the time of the discovery, the seeds from Masada were about 1,900 years old. They went into a drawer at a university in Tel Aviv until 2004. Painstaking methods revived them the following year, including a hot-water bath, a dose of seaweed-based fertilizer, and a solution of hormones. On March 18, 2005, the date palm “Methuselah” emerged from the soil, bringing the species back from extinction.
The Truth About Ancient Egyptian Seeds
The fact is, we may never know the truth about the viability of Ancient Egyptian seeds unless scientists make repeated attempts to sprout them, as germination rates in ancient seeds are quite low. The vast majority of the old seeds are undoubtedly long dead. Nevertheless, there may be a few hardy survivors that gave rise to the tales of mummy seeds.