If you wanted to make an impression on a high-ranking Bronze or Iron Age chieftain, mere jewelry or gems wouldn’t cut it. Instead, you’d present them with an egg—an elaborately carved and embellished ostrich eggshell, to be exact. Such oologic offerings have been found inside the tombs of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern elites who lived from about 2500 to 500 B.C.E., equally thrilling and perplexing archaeologists. Who made them, and how did they wind up in the hands of ancient nobility?
To crack the case, a team of archaeologists and museum curators took a closer look at decorated eggshells in the collection of the British Museum, which includes five prized eggs in outstanding condition. The intact eggs were all discovered in a burial site known as the Isis Tomb in Vulci, Italy, that was uncovered in 1839 by Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Prince Lucien. The tomb dates to about 600 B.C.E. and was filled with other luxury items, including gold jewelry and bronze dinnerware. All five of the ostrich eggs were painted, and four were engraved with repeating geometric patterns (as seen above), animal motifs, and chariots and soldiers.
On other, fragmented pieces found in about a dozen other burial sites around the Mediterranean and Middle East, the researchers used stable isotope analysis—a technique that matches chemical markers in bones and teeth to specific regions—to trace the eggs’ origins. Researchers already suspected they were made by Assyrian and Phoenician craftworkers, and the isotope analysis bore that out. But they found that even within the same tomb, eggshells came from several different regions, indicating a more complex supply chain than previously thought, the researchers report today in Antiquity. A scanning electron microscope also revealed the engravers used a multitude of tools and techniques, underlining the intense effort and skill that went into making these ovular ornaments.