Archaeologists Solve Mystery of Ancient Decorated Ostrich Eggs

by johnsmith

Engraved, painted and embellished with ivory, precious metals and faience fittings, decorated ostrich eggs were traded and exchanged as luxury items around the Mediterranean during the Bronze and Iron Ages. As ostriches are not indigenous to Europe, decorated eggs must have been imported from the Middle East or North Africa, where these big birds were indigenous during these periods. Interpretations of the provenance of the eggs, how they were exchanged and who decorated them have relied upon iconographic analysis and comparison with other worked media. Uncertainty, however, continues to prevail as to where exactly the eggs originated. A new study, led by University of Bristol’s Dr. Tamar Hodos, reveals secrets about their origin and how and where they were made.

Decorated eggs from the Isis Tomb, Vulci, Italy, on display in the British Museum. Image credit: Jononmac46 / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Decorated eggs from the Isis Tomb, Vulci, Italy, on display in the British Museum. Image credit: Jononmac46 / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Dr. Hodos and colleagues examined decorated ostrich eggs from the collection of the British Museum.

Using state-of-the-art scanning electron microscopy, they were able to investigate the eggs’ chemical makeup to pinpoint their origins and study minute marks that reveal how they were made.

“The entire system of decorated ostrich egg production was much more complicated than we had imagined,” Dr. Hodos said.

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

Using a variety of isotopic indicators, the researchers were able to distinguish eggs laid in different climatic zones (cooler, wetter and hotter, drier).

What was most surprising to the team was that eggs from both zones were found at sites in the other zone, suggestive of more extensive trade routes.

The study authors 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.

“We also found eggs require time to dry before the shell can be carved and therefore require safe storage,” Dr. Hodos said.

“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.”

The findings are published in the journal Antiquity.


Tamar Hodos et al. The origins of decorated ostrich eggs in the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East. Antiquity, published online April 9, 2020; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2020.14

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