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Ancient ostrich egg trade was surprisingly complex

Experts are unraveling the mystery surrounding the ancient trade of decorated ostrich eggs. During the Bronze and Iron Ages, painted ostrich eggs were considered a luxury among the elites of Mediterranean societies. 

While discoveries of ornate ostrich eggs are well-documented, very little has been known about how they were made or where the eggs actually came from. 

In a study led by the University of Bristol, an international team of archaeologists and scientists has discovered new clues about the origin and distribution of the ancient eggs. The investigation was focused on ostrich eggs that have been preserved in a collection at the British Museum. To analyze their chemical composition, the team used advanced techniques like scanning electron microscopy. The research is providing brand new insight into the surprisingly complex system used to produce the highly prized eggs.

“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,” said study lead author Dr. Tamar Hodos.

“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 experts believe the eggs were snatched from the nests of wild ostriches. This is surprising, considering that there is evidence which suggests ostriches were being kept in captivity by this time. Ostriches can be fierce and aggressive, so taking eggs from wild birds would have been extremely dangerous.

“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 research is part of an ongoing study focused on ancient luxury goods.

“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,” explained Dr. Hodos.

“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.”

The study is published in the journal Antiquity.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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