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Scientists Unscramble Secrets to World of Ancient Ostrich Eggs

Scientists Unscramble Secrets to World of Ancient Ostrich Eggs



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An international team of scientists have revealed secrets about the ancient creation skills, trade and economy of decorated ostrich eggs in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Easter is here again and while for many the holiday (holy-day) marks the resurrection of Christ, others use the date as permission to indulge in their favorite, oh so wonderful, chocolate eggs. But this Easter brings a special scientific treat in the form of a new paper revealing the complexity of the production and trade systems associated with luxury decorated ostrich eggs during the Bronze and Iron Ages across the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Unscrambling Ostrich Eggs in History

A team of archaeologists from the Universities of Bristol and Durham in England are spearheaded by Tamar Hodos, a senior lecturer in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol and author of the 2006 book Local Responses to Colonization in the Iron Age Mediterranean . In their new paper, published in the journal Antiquity, the researchers say during the Bronze and Iron Ages, “decorated ostrich eggs” were traded around the Mediterranean, and they present new observations pertaining to the production techniques, iconography and trade networks, attempting to categorize individual producers, workshops and trade routes.

Map of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean study area. (Tamar Hodos et al. / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

The overall aim of this multidisciplinary science project was to equate unique decorative styles with different cultural identities from various geographic locations and according to the lead author, Tamar Hodos, achieving this was “problematic, as craftspeople were mobile and worked in the service of foreign royal patrons.”

Shell Iconography is a Thin Data Layer Compared to What Lies Within

In ancient times all across Mesopotamia and the greater Levant, engraved and painted ostrich eggs were decorated with ivory, bronze, silver and gold and traded as exotic luxury items and status markers in the Bronze Age (c. third to second millennia BC) and Iron Age (c. first millennium BC) when they were often buried with social elites.

What is more, Assyrian royal texts mention the exploitation of ostriches, for example in The Banquet Stele of King Assurnasirpal II (883–859 BC), he slays and traps numerous elephants, lions, wild bulls and “ostriches” for his palace pleasure gardens.

During the Bronze Age, ostriches were imported from the Middle East and/or North Africa and the question regarding who decorated these eggs has traditionally leaned on iconographic analysis, but this new study looked at five whole ostrich eggs in the British Museum collection that were found in the Isis Tomb: an elite burial at Etruscan Vulci (Italy) dated to c. 625–550 BC.

Two of the decorative ostrich eggs from the Isis tomb on show in the British Museum. / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

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Four are carved and painted and one is painted only with “animals, flora, geometric patterns, soldiers and chariots,” which according to the new paper were fashioned into vessels with metal attachments, none of which survived.

Close up of an ostrich egg that was used in the study and has been decorated with painted animal carvings. / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Tracking the Shell Trails of Ancient Ostrich Eggs

These eggs’ motifs and working methods have been compared with contemporaneous Levantine and Mesopotamian ivory workings, but no Mediterranean egg carving sites have been identified to date for comparison.

To assess the eggs’ origins, the five samples from the British Museum were subjected to strontium, carbon and oxygen isotope analyses to establish whether their isotope ratios matched the region in which they were found, based on the ostriches’ diets, which contain markers pertaining to their geology and climate.

Close up of one of the ostrich eggs used in the study showing the decorative engravings and markings. / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Ten further ancient decorated ostrich-eggshells were examined for tool marks and working techniques using a “Leica MZ APO optical microscope,” which determined that one egg (988) was laid in Amara West Sudan, which had a higher strontium isotope ratio, i.e. higher than seawater and other eggs excavated at the same site.

Whereas example (973) from Ur, Iraq, had the lowest ratio in comparison to other ostrich eggshells from Ur. These results suggest that these particular eggs were laid by birds living in different geological, and hence geographic environments to the other ostrich eggshells at the same site.

The results also indicate a fluctuation in egg sources between relatively local and more distant locations in both the Bronze and Iron Ages and this implies complex trade and exchange networks that were “more flexible, opportunistic and extensive than has been previously considered.”

Close up of an ostrich egg that was used in the study and has been carved and painted. / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

The researchers concluded that the eggs were obtained from the wild rather than through managed (farmed) means, but they said additional experimental work, more comparative data and further study of decorating techniques are necessary to investigate discernible patterns regarding egg decoration and potential nest sites.

Were Ostrich Eggs Representative of Resurrection?

The egg was an ancient symbol used across pagan traditions as a symbol of new life and it was associated spring festivals. But from a Christian perspective, “Easter eggs” are representative of Jesus’ emergence from the tomb and resurrection, but what did ostrich eggs represent in Mesopotamia?

In an email to the author of the new paper, Tamar Hodos, I asked her if the illustrations and decorations were also symbolic of death or rebirth? and she replied “for a number of cultures, an egg itself is symbolic of rebirth, but it is hard to answer your question simply for a few reasons. One is that the [ostrich] eggs are part of material culture over several thousand years, and material culture across different cultures, who have different beliefs, practices, etc.”

Dr. Tamar also pointed out a further complication in categorizing designed ostrich eggs informing “if a Phoenician artist is working in Assyria for an Assyrian king, then should we consider that egg to be Phoenician or Assyrian?” and it is this type of paradoxical question that drives Dr. Tamar’s whole style and approach.

What is perhaps most refreshing in this new paper is that Dr. Tamar and her teams are not afraid to admit that they “don’t have all the answers,” but what they certainly do have, are some fascinating questions, which are in themselves pulling together the scattered jigsaw of the broader cultural role of ostrich eggs in the ancient world.


Archaeology breakthrough: African ostrich eggs relics redefine ancient human history

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Researchers have intricately linked the development of ostrich eggs used as jewellery to reveal some 10,000 years of human cultural interaction across Africa in pre-history times. Ostrich eggshell beads are some of the oldest ornaments made by humans, being found to date back at least 50,000 years ago in Arica.

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Existing research conducted in South Africa has shown that the beads began to increase in size around 2,000 years ago.

This occurred when herding populations first entered the region.

In the newest study, researchers Jennifer Miller and Elizabeth Sawchuk used the data of increasing size to link to increasing interaction between different groups of peoples - most of which had never before met.

The nature of the link has never before been seen a groundbreaking first for both archaeology and studies of ancient sociology.

The eggs reveal 10,000 years of cross-cultural interaction (Image: GETTY)

Some of the eggs were found in eastern Africa, where the famous Dragon Blood Tree rests off the coa (Image: GETTY)

Researchers recorded the diameters of 1,200 ostrich eggshell beads unearthed from 30 sites in Africa dating back to around 10,000 years.

Many of the bead measurements were taken from existing, decades-old unstudied collections and so were being reported for the first time.

The new data extends to the researchers the scope for study, increasing the published bead diameter measurements from 100 to over 1,000, and reveals new trends that oppose longstanding beliefs.

These ostrich eggshell beads reflect different responses to the introduction of herding between eastern and southern Africa.

JUST IN: Treasure trove of coins from time of Russia&rsquos last Tsar unearthed

There are multiple ancient natural rock formations in Africa (Image: GETTY)

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Bead styles in southern Africa were found to have changed in design, adopting a never before seen tailored take.

Yet, despite their renewal, the older bead styles remained and were not directly replaced by the updated versions.

Contrasting were the beads in eastern Africa that, despite introduction of new herders, kept their traditional style.

Although eastern African bead sizes are consistently larger than those from southern Africa, the larger southern African herder beads fall within the eastern African forager size range, hinting at contact between these regions as herding spread.

Africa is a well of ancient history (Image: GETTY)

Samples were taken from east Africa and south Africa (pictured) (Image: GETTY)

Ms Miller, lead author of the new paper, said: "These beads are symbols that were made by hunter-gatherers from both regions for more than 40,000 years.

&ldquoSo changes&mdashor lack thereof&mdashin these symbols tells us how these communities responded to cultural contact and economic change."

This significance of the introduction of new herder groups may be more nuanced than what was initially thought, with the new styles having crossed cultural borders.

New domesticated animals were likely to have been introduced to separate groups, but, archaeological records suggests the incoming influence did not overwhelm existing traditions.

Ancient Egypt is one of Africa's most famously historic empires (Image: Express Newspapers)

The traditional, existing traditions did not change, rather incorporating new trends with their own styles.

This is significant, as it suggests fears of traditions and heritage dying out as a result of cultural assimilation - for example, migration into countries - may be unfounded.

In eastern Africa, studied here for the first time, there was no apparent change in bead style with the arrival of herding groups from the north

Researchers say this may be because the foragers adopted herding while retaining their bead-making traditions.

Bushmen (san) rock painting of antelopes, South Africa (Image: GETTY)

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Ms Sawchuk, co-author of the paper, said: "In the modern world, migration, cultural contact, and economic change often create tension.

&ldquoAncient peoples experienced these situations too, and the patterns in cultural objects like ostrich eggshell beads give us a chance to study how they navigated these experiences."

Both researchers hope the study will inspire renewed interest in both ostrich eggshell beads and the intricate links between historic peoples who had no prior contact with each other.


Discarded ostrich eggshells provide timeline for our early African ancestors

Archeologists have learned a lot about our ancestors by rummaging through their garbage piles, which contain evidence of their diet and population levels as the local flora and fauna changed over time.

One common kitchen scrap in Africa -- shells of ostrich eggs -- is now helping unscramble the mystery of when these changes took place, providing a timeline for some of the earliest Homo sapiens who settled down to utilize marine food resources along the South African coast more than 100,000 years ago.

Geochronologists at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Berkeley Geochronology Center (BGC) have developed a technique that uses these ubiquitous discards to precisely date garbage dumps -- politely called middens -- that are too old to be dated by radiocarbon or carbon-14 techniques, the standard for materials like bone and wood that are younger than about 50,000 years.

In a paper published this month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, former UC Berkeley doctoral student Elizabeth Niespolo and geochronologist and BGC and associate director Warren Sharp reported using uranium-thorium dating of ostrich eggshells to establish that a midden outside Cape Town, South Africa, was deposited between 119,900 and 113,100 years ago.

That makes the site, called Ysterfontein 1, the oldest known seashell midden in the world, and implies that early humans were fully adapted to coastal living by about 120,000 years ago. This also establishes that three hominid teeth found at the site are among the oldest Homo sapiens fossils recovered in southern Africa.

The technique is precise enough for the researchers to state convincingly that the 12.5-foot-deep pile of mostly marine shells -- mussels, mollusks and limpets -- intermixed with animal bones and eggshells may have been deposited over a period of as little as 2,300 years.

The new ages are already revising some of the assumptions archeologists had made about the early Homo sapiens who deposited their garbage at the site, including how their population and foraging strategies changed with changing climate and sea level.

"The reason why this is exciting is that this site wouldn't have been datable by radiocarbon because it is too old," Niespolo said, noting that there are a lot more such sites around Africa, in particular the coastal areas of South Africa.

"Almost all of this sort of site have ostrich eggshells, so now that we have this technique, there is this potential to go and revisit these sites and use this approach to date them more precisely and more accurately, and more importantly, find out if they are the same age as Ysterfontein or older or younger, and what that tells us about foraging and human behavior in the past," she added.

Because ostrich eggshells are ubiquitous in African middens -- the eggs are a rich source of protein, equivalent to about 20 chicken eggs -- they have been an attractive target for geochronologists. But applying uranium-thorium dating -- also called uranium series -- to ostrich shells has been beset by many uncertainties.

"The previous work to date eggshells with uranium series has been really hit and miss, and mostly miss," Niespolo said.

Precision dating pushed back to 500,000 years ago

Other methods applicable to sites older than 50,000 years, such as luminescence dating, are less precise -- often by a factor of 3 or more -- and cannot be performed on archival materials available in museums, Sharp said.

The researchers believe that uranium-thorium dating can provide ages for ostrich eggshells as old as 500,000 years, extending precise dating of middens and other archeological sites approximately 10 times further into the past.

"This is the first published body of data that shows that we can get really coherent results for things well out of radiocarbon range, around 120,000 years ago in this case," said Sharp, who specializes in using uranium-thorium dating to solve problems in paleoclimate and tectonics as well as archeology. "It is showing that these eggshells maintain their intact uranium-series systems and give reliable ages farther back in time than had been demonstrated before."

"The new dates on ostrich eggshell and excellent faunal preservation make Ysterfontein 1 the as-yet best dated multi-stratified Middle Stone Age shell midden on the South African west coast," said co-author Graham Avery, an archeozoologist and retired researcher with the Iziko South African Museum. "Further application of the novel dating method, where ostrich eggshell fragments are available, will strengthen chronological control in nearby Middle Stone Age sites, such as Hoedjiespunt and Sea Harvest, which have similar faunal and lithic assemblages, and others on the southern Cape coast."

The first human settlements?

Ysterfontein 1 is one of about a dozen shell middens scattered along the western and eastern coasts of Western Cape Province, near Cape Town. Excavated in the early 2000s, it is considered a Middle Stone Age site established around the time that Homo sapiens were developing complex behaviors such as territoriality and intergroup competition, as well as cooperation among non-kin groups. These changes may be due to the fact that these groups were transitioning from hunter-gatherers to settled populations, thanks to stable sources of high-quality protein -- shellfish and marine mammals -- from the sea.

Until now, the ages of Middle Stone Age sites like Ysterfontein 1 have been uncertain by about 10%, making comparison among Middle Stone Age sites and with Later Stone Age sites difficult. The new dates, with a precision of about 2% to 3%, place the site in the context of well-documented changes in global climate: it was occupied immediately after the last interglacial period, when sea level was at a high, perhaps 8 meters (26 feet) higher than today. Sea level dropped rapidly during the occupation of the site -- the shoreline retreated up to 2 miles during this period -- but the accumulation of shells continued steadily, implying that the inhabitants found ways to accommodate the changing distribution of marine food resources to maintain their preferred diet.

The study also shows that the Ysterfontein 1 shell midden accumulated rapidly -- perhaps about 1 meter (3 feet) every 1,000 years -- implying that Middle Stone Age people along the southern African coast made extensive use of marine resources, much like people did during the Later Stone Age, and suggesting that effective marine foraging strategies developed early.

For dating, eggshells are better

Ages can be attached to some archeological sites older than 50,000 years through argon-argon (40Ar/39Ar) dating of volcanic ash. But ash isn't always present. In Africa, however -- and before the Holocene, throughout the Middle East and Asia -- ostrich eggshells are common. Some sites even contain ostrich eggshell ornaments made by early Homo sapiens.

Over the last four years, Sharp and Niespolo conducted a thorough study of ostrich eggshells, including analysis of modern eggshells obtained from an ostrich farm in Solvang, California, and developed a systematic way to avoid the uncertainties of earlier analyses. One key observation was that animals, including ostriches, do not take up and store uranium, even though it is common at parts-per-billion levels in most water. They demonstrated that newly laid ostrich shells contain no uranium, but that it is absorbed after burial in the ground.

The same is true of seashells, but their calcium carbonate structure -- a mineral called aragonite -- is not as stable when buried in soil as the calcite form of calcium carbonate found in eggshell. Because of this, eggshells retain better the uranium taken up during the first hundred years or so that that they are buried. Bone, consisting mostly of calcium phosphate, has a mineral structure that also does not remain stable in most soil environments nor reliably retains absorbed uranium.

Uranium is ideal for dating because it decays at a constant rate over time to an isotope of thorium that can be measured in minute amounts by mass spectrometry. The ratio of this thorium isotope to the uranium still present tells geochronologists how long the uranium has been sitting in the eggshell.

Uranium-series dating relies on uranium-238, the dominant uranium isotope in nature, which decays to thorium-230. In the protocol developed by Sharp and Niespolo, they used a laser to aerosolize small patches along a cross-section of the shell, and ran the aerosol through a mass spectrometer to determine its composition. They looked for spots high in uranium and not contaminated by a second isotope of thorium, thorium-232, which also invades eggshells after burial, though not as deeply. They collected more material from those areas, dissolved it in acid, and then analyzed it more precisely for uranium-238 and thorium-230 with "solution" mass spectrometry.

These procedures avoid some of the previous limitations of the technique, giving about the same precision as carbon-14, but over a time range that is 10 times larger.

"The key to this dating technique that we have developed that differs from previous attempts to date ostrich egg shells is the fact that we are explicitly accounting for the fact that ostrich eggshells have no primary uranium in them, so the uranium that we are using to date the eggshells actually comes from the soil pore water and the uranium is being taken up by the eggshells upon deposition," Niespolo said.

Working with UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology Todd Dawson, Niespolo also analyzed other isotopes in eggshells -- stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen -- to establish that the climate rapidly became drier and cooler over the period of occupation, consistent with known climate changes at that time.

Niespolo, now a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology but soon to be an assistant professor at Princeton University, is working with Sharp to date middens at other sites near Ysterfontein. She also is developing the uranium-series technique to use with other types of eggs, such as those of emus in Australia and rheas in South America, as well as the eggs of now extinct flightless birds, such as the two-meter (6.6-foot) tall Genyornis, which died out some 50,000 years ago in Australia.

The work was supported by the Leakey Foundation, Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation and National Science Foundation (BCS-1727085).


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.

More like this

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.

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

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.

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

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.”

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


5,000-year-old egg hunt: Research reveals surprising complexity of ancient ostrich egg trade

A decorated egg from the Isis Tomb, Vulci, Italy. Credit: © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

An international team of specialists, led by the University of Bristol, is closer to cracking a 5,000-year-old mystery surrounding the ancient trade and production of decorated ostrich eggs.

Long before Fabergé, ornate ostrich eggs were highly prized by the elites of Mediterranean civilisations during the Bronze and Iron Ages, but to date little has been known about the complex supply chain behind these luxury goods.

Examining ostrich eggs from the British Museum's collection, the team, led by Bristol's Dr. Tamar Hodos, were able to reveal secrets about their origin and how and where they were made. Using state-of-the-art scanning electron microscopy, Dr. Caroline Cartwright, Senior Scientist at the British Museum was able to investigate the eggs' chemical makeup to pinpoint their origins and study minute marks that reveal how they were made.

In the study, published today in the journal Antiquity, the researchers describe for the first time the surprisingly complex system behind ostrich egg production. This includes evidence about where the ostrich eggs were sourced, if the ostriches were captive or wild, and how the manufacture methods can be related to techniques and materials used by artisans in specific areas.

A decorated egg from the Isis Tomb, Vulci, Italy, under examination. Credit: (© Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

"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 Dr. Hodos, Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology in Bristol's School of Arts.

"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."

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.

"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.

A figure showing areas of study. Credit: © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol

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."

Dr. Caroline Cartwright, Senior Scientist, Department of Scientific Research, British Museum, said: "The British Museum is delighted to collaborate with colleagues at the universities of Bristol and Durham on this ongoing research. Using state-of-the-art scanning electron microscope facilities in the British Museum's Department of Scientific Research, our experts were able to study these beautiful objects and cast new light on their significance in history. We look forward to continuing to work with university partners and furthering the knowledge and understanding of the Museum's collection."


Archaeologists Go on Egg Hunt to Crack 5,000-Year-Old Mystery

An international team of specialists, led by the University of Bristol, is closer to cracking a 5,000-year-old mystery surrounding the ancient trade and production of decorated ostrich eggs.

Long before Fabergé, ornate ostrich eggs were highly prized by the elites of Mediterranean civilizations during the Bronze and Iron Ages, but to date little has been known about the complex supply chain behind these luxury goods.

Examining ostrich eggs from the British Museum’s collection, the team, led by Bristol’s Dr. Tamar Hodos, were able to reveal secrets about their origin and how and where they were made. Using state-of-the-art scanning electron microscopy, Dr. Caroline Cartwright, Senior Scientist at the British Museum was able to investigate the eggs’ chemical makeup to pinpoint their origins and study minute marks that reveal how they were made.

This is a decorated egg from the Isis Tomb, Vulci, Italy, under examination. Credit: © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

In the study, published today (April 9, 2020) in the journal Antiquity, the researchers describe for the first time the surprisingly complex system behind ostrich egg production. This includes evidence about where the ostrich eggs were sourced, if the ostriches were captive or wild, and how the manufacture methods can be related to techniques and materials used by artisans in specific areas.

“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 Dr. Hodos, Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology in Bristol’s School of Arts.

“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.”

This is a figure showing areas of study. Credit: © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol

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.

“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 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.”

Dr. Caroline Cartwright, Senior Scientist, Department of Scientific Research, British Museum, said

“The British Museum is delighted to collaborate with colleagues at the universities of Bristol and Durham on this ongoing research. Using state-of-the-art scanning electron microscope facilities in the British Museum’s Department of Scientific Research, our experts were able to study these beautiful objects and cast new light on their significance in history. We look forward to continuing to work with university partners and furthering the knowledge and understanding of the Museum’s collection.”

Reference: “The origins of decorated ostrich eggs in the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East” by Tamar Hodos, Caroline R. Cartwright, Janet Montgomery, Geoff Nowell, Kayla Crowder, Alexandra C. Fletcher and Yvonne Gönster, 9 April 2020, Antiquity.
DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2020.14


The three pyramids of Giza in an ostrich egg over 5000 years old?

Ostriches were hunted by the ancient Egyptians from pre-dynastic times. Their eggs were widely used during this period for various purposes, from serving as food to containers once emptied. One of these eggs was found in a tomb in Nubia, belonging to the Naqada I culture and dating back more than 5,000 years. The peculiarity: it has painted what some have associated with the Giza pyramids, something impossible considering the official date of construction of these monuments. But … are they really pyramids?

Egyptologists estimate that the great pyramids on the Giza plateau are about 4,600 years old. However, because they are made of stone, traditional dating methods, such as carbon-14, cannot be used to estimate their age. To make matters worse, the absence of significant inscriptions within these structures and the clear architectural involution produced later, they suggest that the Egyptians of the time of Cheops, Khafrén and Micerino, perhaps were not its builders – or if they were, they received help from someone more advanced.

For the reasons outlined above, much of what is known about the Giza complex is conjecture accepted as historical truth. For example, Egyptology assumes that the so-called builders’ cemetery, found in 1990 in the vicinity of the three pyramids and their satellites, housed those who erected these monuments. And while that seems logical, it is also the fact that in that place there are not as many tombs as there must have been builders to lift these moles — allegedly — with tools that had just come out of the Neolithic period.

And let’s not even talk about the Great Sphinx, whose face it does not match with that of the pharaoh who is blamed.

The pyramids in an egg?

The uncertainty created around the Giza plateau has led many to search for evidence beyond orthodoxy, some findings being quite substantial – to at least consider the hypothesis of greater antiquity – and others quite dubious.

And it is precisely one of the latter that represents a striking ostrich egg found in a tomb near Aswan. According to the dating, the human remains that lay in said tomb were 5,000 years old. Ergo, it seems reasonable to think that the objects found there, the funerary trousseau, were equally ancient.

The object in the Nubian Museum in Aswan, Egypt.

The ostrich egg is decorated with a drawing of this animal next to what some boast, by similarity and proximity, are three pyramids and the Nile river on one side. But how is this possible if the monuments of Giza — according to the ruling party — did not yet exist five millennia ago?

The truth is that the proportion of these triangles does not coincide with those of the three on the plateau, where that of Micerino is clearly smaller in size.

Likewise, the triangles are geometrically isosceles, a shape that is more reminiscent of the humble – in comparison – and pointed pyramids of Meroe, in present-day Sudan and belonging to the kingdom of Kush. However, these structures were built as tombs closer to post-Christ dates and are located further south of where the ostrich egg was found – in a place that, in ancient times, would have been a different kingdom from that which ruled. over the Aswan area.

But then, if these triangles that decorate the egg do not represent any of the aforementioned pyramids, what do they symbolize?

The answer in chips

In 1988, in the footsteps of the famous Flinders Petrie, the German archaeologist Günter Dreyer set out to find the tombs of the Zero dynasty of Egypt. During excavations at Abydos, he came upon a mysterious 5,250-year-old tomb. Inside it he found objects that pointed to it would have belonged to a certain Scorpio king, until then had as a mythical predynastic figure by Egyptologists.

One of the most important things found on the floor of this tomb is what solves the riddle of the “pyramids” in the ostrich egg: stamps and ivory chips the size of stamps, 160 in all.

Each of these pieces was carved with simple figures: trees, birds, snakes, elephants, mountains, etc. At first glance, the images look like primitive drawings similar to those found in prehistoric caves and vessels. In cave paintings an image is what it is, an image of a bird means bird but these chips meant something more.

Using Egyptian hieroglyphs as a guide, Dreyer and his team set out to demonstrate that these figures were symbols and that they represented the oldest known writing system. For example, one of them shows an elephant on some mountains if we assign to this a phonetic value of a similar hieroglyph: the elephant represents the sound “Ab” and the mountains the sound “Yu”. Putting the syllables together we get “Ab-Yu”, which is the name of Abidos. And it was shown that the same thing happened to the other tiles, each one representing a place or city.

The triangles that we see in the ostrich egg, then, are nothing more and nothing less than mountains, as can be seen in this set of tiles:

The line that appears in the mountains does not represent the rows of rocks of the pyramids, as the rest of the figures are not made up of blocks either, but rather are mountains drawn using that decorative style characteristic of the Naqada I period (that type of decoration disappears in Egypt in Nagada II). Credit: Egiptomania.com

The textual translation of the labels in the image above is: “(From) the mountains of darkness,” that is, the place where the sun sets, the west. The curved line over the mountains is a snake that represents the sound “dy” and is a phonetic complement to the word “mountain = Yu”. So if the label belonged to a jug of wine, it should be interpreted as “coming from the west”. With two or three triangles they have the same translation and even if the serpent is omitted, since the sound represented is always «dyu = mountain / s». With the subsequent evolution of these signs, both their phonetic values ​​and their meanings will change.

We can conclude then that this puzzle is solved, and that evidently what is seen in the ostrich egg of the Naqada culture does not prove a greater antiquity of the Giza pyramids. However, it is still as amazing, as we are dealing with the first complete writing system, prior to the cuneiform characters of Mesopotamia and from which Egyptian hieroglyphs would later evolve.

It should be noted, to finish clarifying the matter, that in his unification campaign the Scorpio king conquered Naqada, in what was a decisive battle to seize power.


Study reveals surprising complexity of ancient ostrich egg trade

An international team of specialists, led by the University of Bristol, is closer to cracking a 5,000-year-old mystery surrounding the ancient trade and production of decorated ostrich eggs.

Long before Fabergé, ornate ostrich eggs were highly prized by the elites of Mediterranean civilisations during the Bronze and Iron Ages, but to date little has been known about the complex supply chain behind these luxury goods.

Examining ostrich eggs from the British Museum’s collection, the team, led by Bristol’s Dr Tamar Hodos, were able to reveal secrets about their origin and how and where they were made. Using state-of-the-art scanning electron microscopy, Dr Caroline Cartwright, Senior Scientist at the British Museum was able to investigate the eggs’ chemical makeup to pinpoint their origins and study minute marks that reveal how they were made.

In the study, published today in the journal Antiquity, the researchers describe for the first time the surprisingly complex system behind ostrich egg production. This includes evidence about where the ostrich eggs were sourced, if the ostriches were captive or wild, and how the manufacture methods can be related to techniques and materials used by artisans in specific areas.

“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 Dr Hodos, Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology in Bristol’s School of Arts.

“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.”

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.

“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 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.”

Dr Caroline Cartwright, Senior Scientist, Department of Scientific Research, British Museum, said:

“The British Museum is delighted to collaborate with colleagues at the universities of Bristol and Durham on this ongoing research. Using state-of-the-art scanning electron microscope facilities in the British Museum’s Department of Scientific Research, our experts were able to study these beautiful objects and cast new light on their significance in history. We look forward to continuing to work with university partners and furthering the knowledge and understanding of the Museum’s collection.”

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Materials provided by University of Bristol. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Archaeologists Go on Egg Hunt to Crack 5,000-Year-Old Mystery

An international team of specialists, led by the University of Bristol, is closer to cracking a 5,000-year-old mystery surrounding the ancient trade and production of decorated ostrich eggs.

Long before Fabergé, ornate ostrich eggs were highly prized by the elites of Mediterranean civilizations during the Bronze and Iron Ages, but to date little has been known about the complex supply chain behind these luxury goods.

Examining ostrich eggs from the British Museum’s collection, the team, led by Bristol’s Dr. Tamar Hodos, were able to reveal secrets about their origin and how and where they were made. Using state-of-the-art scanning electron microscopy, Dr. Caroline Cartwright, Senior Scientist at the British Museum was able to investigate the eggs’ chemical makeup to pinpoint their origins and study minute marks that reveal how they were made.

This is a decorated egg from the Isis Tomb, Vulci, Italy, under examination. Credit: © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

In the study, published today (April 9, 2020) in the journal Antiquity, the researchers describe for the first time the surprisingly complex system behind ostrich egg production. This includes evidence about where the ostrich eggs were sourced, if the ostriches were captive or wild, and how the manufacture methods can be related to techniques and materials used by artisans in specific areas.

“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 Dr. Hodos, Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology in Bristol’s School of Arts.

“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.”

This is a figure showing areas of study. Credit: © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol

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.

“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 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.”

Dr. Caroline Cartwright, Senior Scientist, Department of Scientific Research, British Museum, said

“The British Museum is delighted to collaborate with colleagues at the universities of Bristol and Durham on this ongoing research. Using state-of-the-art scanning electron microscope facilities in the British Museum’s Department of Scientific Research, our experts were able to study these beautiful objects and cast new light on their significance in history. We look forward to continuing to work with university partners and furthering the knowledge and understanding of the Museum’s collection.”

Reference: “The origins of decorated ostrich eggs in the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East” by Tamar Hodos, Caroline R. Cartwright, Janet Montgomery, Geoff Nowell, Kayla Crowder, Alexandra C. Fletcher and Yvonne Gönster, 9 April 2020, Antiquity.
DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2020.14


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