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article imageDecorated ostrich eggs point to complexity of ancient trade

By Karen Graham     Apr 11, 2020 in Science
Ornately decorated ostrich eggs were prized items among the elite circles of Mediterranean civilizations during the Bronze and Iron Ages, but little was know about how they were produced, traded and moved around the region.
Our relationship with ostrich eggs dates back over 60,000 years in South Africa, where ostrich eggshell fragments have been found in places occupied by humans. The large eggs, equal to about two dozen chicken eggs provided food, however, the shells also provided an ideal, durable canvas for human art.
Decorated ostrich eggs were traded around the Mediterranean during the Bronze and Iron Ages, about 5,000 years ago. The large, intact eggshells were often ornate - engraved with geometric patterns and motifs featuring animals, flowers, chariots, and soldiers. Some of the eggshells are decorated with metal inlays.
The British Museum is home to a quintet of pristinely preserved ostrich eggs, which were uncovered during the 19th century at the Isis Tomb, an elite burial tomb in Italy, and were dated to around 625 to 550 BC. The burial site was teeming with elite and expensive goods. For decades, archaeologists wondered how these marvelous decorated eggs came to be.
Decorated ostrich eggs were traded around the Mediterranean during the Bronze and Iron Ages.
Decorated ostrich eggs were traded around the Mediterranean during the Bronze and Iron Ages.
Dr. Tamar Hodos et al.
So many questions remained unanswered, reports Atlas Obscura. Did the eggs come from farmed ostriches? How did ancient Greeks and Spaniards get their hands on delicate, perishable goods from the Middle East and Northern Africa? How were the eggs crafted and decorated?
Added to the mystery is the fact that no ostrich egg workshops have been identified in archaeological records, nor have any bones been found at ancient sites. All these questions prompted an international team of specialists, led by the University of Bristol, to analyze the five eggs in the British Museum.
They found that the story surrounding the ostrich eggs involved far-reaching geography in the ancient ostrich egg trade, as well as a complex chain of production. The team's findings were published on April 8, 2020, in the journal Antiquity.
Fragment of decorated egg from the Sanctuary of Apollo at Naukratis  in Egypt.
Fragment of decorated egg from the Sanctuary of Apollo at Naukratis, in Egypt.
Dr Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)
Answers to some perplexing questions
The researchers not only examined the ostrich eggs in the British Museum but they also studied modern ostrich eggs, for comparison—and for protein.
“It makes a lot of quiches, cakes, and omelets to keep you going in the basement of the British Museum while you’re looking at a scanning electron microscope,” says Tamar Hodos, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol and lead author of the new paper. “We ate well for three days down there.” (She was talking about the modern ostrich eggs, of course).
She also pointed out that "The entire system of decorated ostrich egg production was much more complicated than we had imagined! We also found evidence to suggest the ancient world was much more interconnected than previously thought."
Male and Female ostriches Cape Point
Male and Female ostriches Cape Point
Andrew massyn
Mediterranean ostriches were indigenous to the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. The researchers used a variety of isotopic indicators and were able to distinguish eggs laid in different climatic zones, including cooler, wetter and drier or hotter zones.
What was interesting was that "eggs from both zones were found at sites in the other zone, suggestive of more extensive trade routes, says Hodos. Dr. Hodos believes the eggs were taken from wild bird nests, a very dangerous thing to do, despite evidence of ostriches being kept in captivity during this period.
They were then ferried to Assyrian and Phoenician artists who carefully crafted decorations on to the shells before they were sent out into the world, likely through extensive and far-flung trading routes.
Untitled
British Museum
"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," said Dr. Hodos.
The study highlights the interconnectedness of an ancient world - not unlike the modern world of today. While we don't know how much the ornately decorated eggs cost, ancient people, much like some of us today, were clearly willing to pony up for a flashy, fancy egg.
As Hodos says in a statement, “The entire system of decorated ostrich egg production was much more complicated than we had imagined.”
More about ostrich eggs, Bronze and Iron ages, Mediterranean ostriches, ornate eggs, complex trade
 
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