A recent xkcd contains the claim that honey has a shelf life that's so long that edible jars of honey have been found in Egyptian tombs several thousand years old.

Image taken from http://www.xkcd.com/1717/, licensed under a CC BY-NC 2.5 license.

The Smithsonian article in question appears to be The Science Behind Honey’s Eternal Shelf Life, which starts off with

Modern archeologists, excavating ancient Egyptian tombs, have often found something unexpected amongst the tombs’ artifacts: pots of honey, thousands of years old, and yet still preserved. Through millennia, the archeologists discover, the food remains unspoiled, an unmistakable testament to the eternal shelf-life of honey.

The Smithsonian article references SL Buchman and B Repplier's Letters from the Hive, and I'm unable to get hold of a copy, but the claim is quite extraordinary to be citing a book of that sort.

A previous question on this site asked about the shelf-life of honey, but the answers there don't really address the thousand+ year timescale, even though the OP's source there also contains the claim that

You could place it anywhere for thousands of years and it will not spoil. In fact, edible honey was found in ancient Egyptian Pharaoh King Tut’s tomb!

Since xkcd has sort of left things hanging, I'd like for someone to take up Megan's track and show some more solid evidence either way for the claims of edible honey in Egyptian tombs. In particular, if the claim is true, then my feeling is that the must be credible reports in the archaeology literature, so those would be nice to see. (If it's false, on the other hand, then it may be harder to debunk.)

  • Is there anything more I can add to my answer to improve it to you? Unfortunately, the best I can do is indicate absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence. Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 15:16
  • @SeanDuggan It would be good to address the claims raised by Smithsonian Magazine. I'm not a huge fan of their stuff but it's important to examine the evidence they claim. In the absence of other sources, I'd really want to see an examination of SM's source and what sort of evidence that book was using.
    – E. P.
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 15:52

1 Answer 1


Evidence for it seems to be lacking. This is the closest I've found to an exploration of the sources and the most likely source for the claim is the 1907 account of explorer Theodore Davis regarding the Tomb of Yuya and Tjuyu (emphasis mine):

From the neck of one of the vases hung shreds of mummy-cloth which had originally covered the mouth of the vase. Evidently the robber, expecting the contents to be valuable, tore off the cloth. Three thousand years thereafter I looked into the vase with like expectation; both of us were disappointed, for it contained only a liquid which was first thought to be honey, but which subsequently proved to be natron.

Combined with the finding of jars in Tutankhamen's tomb that bore the sign for honey, and later research with analysis of stains on the inside of jars showing that they once contained honey (best link I've found so far is of a Georgian dig which actually predates the Egypt finds), you get the factoid of "liquid honey was found in the tombs and was still edible".

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