Garlic never really goes away: archaeobotanical finds!

After my earlier efforts exploring the ancient origins of garlic I did a bit more detective work & ended up collating the information I discovered: I’m posting this in bitesize chunks, rather than an indigestible mass – be thankful for small mercies! For those of you who care about these things I’ve also included a list of sources at the end.


We have significant knowledge of Egyptian kitchen gardens and their contents due to the excellent conditions of preservation of plant remains, but also because of the way in which  Egyptian society meticulously recorded every aspect of daily life in tomb models, wall paintings, carvings, papyri and rock inscriptions. The variety of funeral offerings in the tombs of wealthy Egyptians of the 3rd and 2nd millennia are also most likely to reflect their diets during their life times (Leach, 1982: 7).

Archaeological finds of white-painted, unbaked clay models of, what have been interpreted as, cloved garlic bulbs from the Predynastic sites of el-Mahasna, Naqada and the cemetery at Umm el Qa’ab at Abydos are considered to be the earliest known record for Garlic (Ayrton and Loat, 1911). The first archaeobotanical evidence is from 18th Dynasty tomb finds, while the first textual record for garlic in Egypt is from the 20th Dynasty text, the Papyrus Harris (Tackholm and Drar, 1954: 94). Well-preserved, later archaeobotanical specimens have also been found at Deir el-Medina and in the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) (Hepper, 1990: 50)

Archaeobotanical finds of garlic from the Pharonic period appear to be cloved varieties of garlic; garlic species had been valued for the medicinal properties of their volatile oils since at least the New Kingdom, onwards (Pliny N.H. XX, XXIII in Darby et al, 1977: 657; see also Nunn, 1996: 14). Hepper notes that garlic was valued for its properties as a preservative and was used during the embalming process (Hepper, 1990: 55).

Large scale cultivation of garlic, particularly in the Faiyum area, was introduced into Egypt by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC, and many texts of the Greco-Roman period allude to its cultivation (Crawford, 1973).  Garlic is most likely to have been grown in the flood basins after the flood waters receded and in small market gardens away from the flood basins, intercropped with other plants such as grape vines (Crawford, 1973). Leach (1982) suggests that the vine-dressers in the Faiyum area gained additional income by selling surplus vegetables; as most of these workers were Greeks it is likely they would perpetuate gardening practices from their Greek homeland, including the cultivation of garlic. Lease agreements from the Ptolemaic period also suggest January was the usual month for the garlic harvest (Crawford, 1973: 355).

The Bible mentions garlic as a food eaten by the Israelites during their exile in Egypt. Shortly after they had been delivered from slavery by Moses, while wandering through Sinai, suffering from hunger, they recalled the food they had eaten while in slavery:
We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick (King James Bible, Numbers 11:5)


Ayrton, E.R., and Loak, W.L.S. (1911)  Pre-dynastic cemetery at El Mahasna, London.

Crawford, D.(1973) ‘Garlic-Growing and Agricultural Specialisation in Graeco-Roman Egypt’, Chronique d’Egypte, Vol 48, No 96, Juillet 1973 pp. 350-363.

Darby, W.J., Ghalioungui, P. and Grivetti, L. (1977) Food: The Gift of Osiris, 2 vols, Academic Press; London.

Hepper, F.N. (1990) Pharoh’s Flowers: the Botanical Treasures of Tutankhamun, The Stationary Office; London.

Hoernle, A. F. R. 91909) The Bower Manuscript. Reprinted in Studies in the History of Science in India. (1982) Vol. I. (Ed.) Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. New Delhi: Editorial Enterprises. pp. 116- 140.

Leach, H.L. (1982) ‘On the Origins of Kitchen Gardening in the Ancient Near East’, Garden History, Vol. 10. No.1 (Spring, 1982) pp.1-16.

Nicholson, P.T., and Shaw, I. (2000/2006) Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge.

Nunn, J.F. (1996) Ancient Egyptian Medicine, University of Oklahoma Press.

Renfrew, J.M. (1985) ‘Preliminary report on the botanical remains’, in B.J.Kemp (ed.) Armarna Reports II, Occasional Publications2, pp.175-190. Egypt Exploration Society; London

Tackholm, V., and Drar, M. (1954) Flora of Egypt, Vol 3, Faculty of Sciences of the University, Cairo.

2 thoughts on “Garlic never really goes away: archaeobotanical finds!

    • thanks for you’re encouragement – good to know someone is actually reading what we write. Have several topics in the pipeline as well as seasonal reporting -do visit again. Teresa

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