Ancient texts are generally difficult to interpret. Even seasoned scholars of the ancient Near East who have spent many years learning to read the cuneiform or hieroglyphic scripts, and the peculiar languages behind them, can still stumble trying to make sense of a written text. This is because correct interpretation of an ancient document requires a deep understanding of the complex realities of ancient life—whether the text is an incantation or a shopping list.
Obscure terminology in texts penned millennia ago is one of the obvious obstacles. But even when we know exactly how to translate a particular word, we may be in the dark about the true meaning or concept behind the word. Take the Greek word for wheat (puros), which occurs frequently in the papyri from Egypt, until it is supplanted by the synonymous sitos in the fourth century C.E. It is now widely accepted that neither necessarily denotes pure wheat but, rather, a mixture of grains in which wheat was dominant grain—with about 10 percent being, typically, barley. This is because wheat and barley were largely sown together in ancient Egypt.
Some textual references to ancient wheat are even fuzzier, calling it Persian wheat or Syrian wheat. So what kind of ancient grain was typically used in different periods and regions of the ancient Near East? Bread aficionados will tell you that there are many different wheat strains to use in bread making.
Writing for the November/December 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Andrea M. Berlin of Boston University investigates what kind of ancient wheat people grew (and consumed) at Tel Kedesh (ancient Kedesa), on the Lebanese border with Israel, in the third century B.C.E. In her article “Zenon’s Flour: Grains of Truth from Tel Kedesh,” Berlin describes how she and her team were able to collect microscopic samples of dried silica skins of plant bodies, the so-called phytoliths, from jars they unearthed in a storage room at Tel Kedesh. Results of their analysis surprised them.
Without revealing too much, I will share that the local people—during the Hellenistic period, anyway—were apparently involved in agricultural experiments. I will also disclose that Berlin’s research sheds light on the identity of the ancient grain recorded by the well-known Ptolemaic administrator, Zenon, during his business trip around Palestine in 259 B.C.E.
To learn much more about ancient wheat from Tel Kedesh and how it is related to papyrus records from the Zenon Archive, read the article “Zenon’s Flour: Grains of Truth from Tel Kedesh” by Andrea M. Berlin in the November/December 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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Subscribers: Read the full article “Zenon’s Flour: Grains of Truth from Tel Kedesh” by Andrea M. Berlin in the November/December 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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