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Cracking the mystery of Bronze Age decorated ostrich eggs 2

a photo of a large egg with a hole in it

Decorated egg from the Isis Tomb, Italy.  Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum

The mysteries of the Fabergé eggs of the Ancient world begin to be revealed in a new study

Engraved, painted and embellished with ivory, precious metals and faience fittings, decorated ostrich eggs were traded around the Mediterranean during the Bronze and Iron Ages.

These ancient versions of the Fabergé egg have been found in the tombs of the elite from Mesopotamia and the Levant across the wider Mediterranean region, together with other decorative objects of ivory, bronze, silver and gold.

They were clearly luxury objects and status markers, but unlike many other funerary objects from the ancient world, mystery surrounds their origin and how they were produced and traded.

Now the 5,000-year-old mystery is closer to being cracked thanks to a pioneering study of a collection of five decorated ostrich eggs originally found in the Isis Tomb, an elite burial at Etruscan Vulci (Italy) dated to c. 625–550 BC, now held at the British Museum.

Ostrich egg vessel carved in low relief with a scene of lions and other animals:

Decorated Ostrich egg from the 7th century BC. Found in the Isis Tomb, Italy.

a shell fragment with carved flowers on it

Fragment of ostrich eggshell with carved inner surface, Twenty-seventh Dynasty, Sanctuary of Appollo, Naukratis, Egypt, University of Bristol, with the permission of the British Museum

An international team of specialists, led by the University of Bristol, has begun to reveal secrets about their origin and how and where they were made. In the study, published today (9 April) in the journal Antiquity, the researchers describe for the first time the surprisingly complex system behind the decorated ostrich egg’s production.

“The entire system of decorated ostrich egg production was much more complicated than we had imagined” says Bristol’s Dr Tamar Hodos, who is leading the project and is Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology in Bristol’s School of Arts. “We also found evidence to suggest the ancient world was much more interconnected than previously thought.

“Mediterranean ostriches were indigenous to the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Using a variety of isotopic indicators, we were able to distinguish eggs laid in different climatic zones (cooler, wetter and hotter, drier). What was most surprising to us was that eggs from both zones were found at sites in the other zone, suggestive of more extensive trade routes.”

As ostriches are not indigenous to Europe, decorated eggs from Bronze and Iron Age archaeological contexts in Greece, Italy and Spain must have been imported from the Middle East and/or North Africa, where ostriches were indigenous during these periods.

Dr Hodos and colleagues believe eggs were taken from wild birds’ nests despite evidence of ostriches being kept in captivity during this period.

This was no ordinary egg-hunt – ostriches can be extremely dangerous so there was a tremendous risk involved in taking eggs from wild birds.

Ostrich egg vessel carved in low relief with a scene of lions and other animals:

Decorated Ostrich egg from the 7th century BC. Found in the Isis Tomb, Italy. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

a detail of decoration on an eggshell

A dog engraved on the side of the Isis Tomb Ostrich shell. Courtesy British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

“We also found eggs require time to dry before the shell can be carved and therefore require safe storage. This has economic implications, since storage necessitates a long-term investment and this, combined with the risk involved, would add to an egg’s luxury value,” says Dr Hodos.

Using state-of-the-art scanning electron microscopy, Dr Caroline Cartwright, Senior Scientist at the British Museum was also able to investigate the eggs’ chemical makeup to pinpoint their origins and study minute marks that reveal how they were made.

Isotopic analysis reveals the eggs came from all over the Middle East, including Sudan and Iraq, and the techniques used by the ancient craftsmen who fashioned the shells into luxury objects included polishing, smooth scraping, abrading, pecking, scratching, scoring, picking and shaving.

Experts believe the craftsmen used a variety of tools in their work including metal, flint, bone, antler and wood—sometimes in conjunction with buffing, smoothing or abrading with organic materials – highlighting the diversity and variability of egg-carving techniques, and the skill of the ancient craftworkers.

The study is part of an ongoing research project into ancient luxury goods, Globalising Luxuries.

Dr Hodos explains: “We are assessing not only how ancient luxuries were produced but also how they were used by different peoples. These questions are incredibly important for our own society today, in which the same object may have different social or symbolic meanings for different groups.

“Such knowledge and understanding helps foster tolerance and mutual respect in a multi-cultural society. If we can understand these mechanisms in the past, for which we have long-term outcomes in terms of social development, we can use this knowledge to better inform our own society in a number of ways.”

a photo of an eggshell decorated with the image of a horned sheep

Detail of a sheep on the side of the Isis eggshell. Courtesy British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

a detail of an engraved eggshell

Courtesy British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

For more on the project see www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/research/globalising-luxuries/

2 comments on “Cracking the mystery of Bronze Age decorated ostrich eggs

  1. AJ Mitchell on

    Super interesting. Fantastic rams head. Is ‘held by the British museum’ the same as ‘on show in the British museum’?


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