A most successful egg hunt

This isn’t quite an Easter story, but it does date back centuries and it is about eggs.

Scientists say they are closer to understanding the lucrative production and trade of decorated ostrich eggs 5000 years ago.

These highly decorated items were luxury goods, prized by the elites of Mediterranean civilisations during the Bronze and Iron Ages, but to date little has been known about their supply chain – other than that they must have been imported.

Now an international team led by archaeologist Tamar Hodos from the University of Bristol, UK, has used scanning electron microscopy to investigate the chemical makeup of eggs held by the British Museum to pinpoint their origins and how they were made.

They were able to uncover such details as whether the ostriches were captive or wild, and how the manufacturing methods can be related to techniques and materials used by artisans in specific areas.

Writing in the journal Antiquity, they note that research to date has focused primarily on decorative techniques and iconography to characterise the producers, workshops and trade routes, thereby equating decorative styles with cultural identities and geographic locations. 

However, this is problematic, they say, as craftspeople were mobile and worked in the service of foreign royal patrons.

Hodos says the new research shows that entire production system was much more complicated than he and others had expected. 

“We also found evidence to suggest the ancient world was much more interconnected than previously thought,” he says.

“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.”

The researchers believe the eggs they studied were taken from wild birds’ nests – a venture not without risk – despite evidence of ostriches being kept in captivity during this period. 

They also found that eggs required time to dry before the shell could be carved, meaning they also had to be stored safely. 

“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,” Hodos says.

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