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Food from 4,500-year-old tomb discovered in forgotten box at British university

Ruins of the ancient city of Ur, in southern Iraq.
Ruins of the ancient city of Ur, in southern Iraq.
M. Lubinski, Wikimedia Commons

After being tucked away and all but forgotten for decades, some food well past its expiration date, yet historically significant, has been rediscovered.

Yahoo UK notes on Monday that staff in the University of Bristol’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology came across a box while clearing out some lab space in order to make room for a new facility dedicated to radiocarbon dating. A closer look at the box resulted in something of a historic discovery, however, as the contents were revealed to be food remains from a 4,500-year-old Mesopotamian tomb.

The box contained some pottery, seeds, and some small animal bones including those of tunny fish, all believed to have been food offerings. Some index cards containing information about the box’s origin (and a Google search of some of the keywords on them) helped the staff determine that the food remains came from a royal tomb in the ancient city of Ur, located in what is now southern Iraq.

Sir Leonard Woolley led the “definitive” excavation of the site from 1922-1934 for the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania and made multiple discoveries, including the graves of 16 kings and queens and an elaborate grave complex he called The Great Death Pit. Wooley, who is said to have been looking to outdo Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, also claimed to have found evidence of the Biblical flood described in Genesis but the claim was ultimately discredited.

Dr. Tamar Hodos of Bristol University said the real mystery was just how the remains wound up at the school in the first place since the finds were divided among London, Philadelphia, and Baghdad during the original excavations. Hodos added that the authors behind the published study of the findings, which appeared in a 1978 Journal of Archaeological Science, were based in London and Southampton and did not have a clear connection to Bristol that might explain how the box made its way there.

"If anyone can shed light on this mystery, we would love to hear from them," Hodos said.

The box and the centuries-old foodstuffs have reportedly now been moved to the British Museum, where the rest of the U.K. collection of artifacts from Ur are currently housed.

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