Ostrich Eggs

By: David Conwell

Originally Published in 1987

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Figure 10. Ostrich egg rhyton from Mycenae in Greece, with spout and appliqué dolphins of faience. The slightly curved underpiece attached to the base is made of gold foil over a wooden core. From Shaft Grade V, except the spout which was found in Shaft Grave IV.
Figure 10. Ostrich egg rhyton from Mycenae in Greece, with spout and appliqué dolphins of faience. The slightly curved underpiece attached to the base is made of gold foil over a wooden core. From Shaft Grade V, except the spout which was found in Shaft Grave IV.
From G. Karo Die Schachtgräber von Mykenai Verlag F. Bruckmann Ag. 1930: pl. 141)

The exotic and easily recognized ostrich egg is found surprisingly often by archaeologists working all around the Mediterranean. Evidence for its use is found as early as the 7th millennium B.C. While it yields large amounts of protein and is thus best known as a dietary supplement, it has many other uses, and is therefore of substantial inter­est to scholars who study ancient art, crafts, trade, and religion (Caubet 1983, Finet 1982, Laufer 1926, Reese 1985). A survey of these may help us to understand why the ancient Libyans offered whole ostrich eggs to the Egyptian, Pharaoh as items of tribute, and why broken shells ended up in occupation debris on Bates’ Island.

ostrich_egg_cup
Figure 9. Ostrich eggshell cup from Grave 2 in the Early Dynamic/Early Akkadian (ca. 2500-2300 B.C.) “A” Cemetery at Kish in Mesopotamia. The egg’s contents having been eaten, one-third of the top of the shell was cut away so that it could function as a cup–with a large capacity.
From Laufer 1926: Pl. 1. Reproduced by permission of the Field Museum of Natural History [Neg. no. 50970], Chicago)
An ostrich egg weighs up to 2 kg when full, with a capacity of more than 1 liter. It is equivalent in volume to about two dozen domestic hen’s eggs, so that an omelet made from one ostrich egg can feed at least 12 people I The egg measures about 15 by 13 cm, while the shell itself is about 2 mm thick. Its surface is usually quite smooth, varying in color from tan to ivory.

Once emptied, it may serve as a cup, a vessel in which to carry or store water, or a container for powders and liquids such as body paints (Figs. 7-9). Such uses are especial­ly common among peoples without ceramic vessels. Already used as a container in North Africa before the Bronze Age, the ostrich egg was best known in the Late Bronze Age Aegean world as a rhyton. This was an often highly decorated vessel which might sometimes have been used in religious ceremonies; ex­amples of ostrich egg rhyta are known from mainland Greece, the Aegean islands, and Cyprus (Fig. 10).

Besides serving as a container, the emptied ostrich egg has other practical uses. For example, various ancient peoples shaped the shell into arrow heads and potters’ combs. Babylonian and Assyrian texts record its medicinal as well as its magical values (Finet 1982:75), and ground ostrich eggshell is still said to be able to protect one from blindness.

The use of ostrich eggs for religious purposes is well docu­mented. Eggs were offered in an­cient Greek sanctuaries, where they served as a symbol of fertility and prosperity, and are still displayed in churches. Empty ostrich eggshells, often decorated with painted or in­cised designs, were placed in graves as early as the 5th millen­nium B.C. This practice is relative­ly common, and is documented for cultures dated from the 4th to the 2nd millennia B.C. including Predynastic and Pharaonic Egypt; Early Dynastic Nubia; and Bronze Age Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Syro-Palestine, and Mesopotamia (Fig.11). In the later 1st millennium B.C., ostrich eggs were used as grave goods by the Punic Phoenicians and Etruscans, symbolizing resurrection and eternal life, as well as providing “food” for the deceased. Today, ostrich eggs are still used by Mos­lems to honor the dead, being hung near or above the place of burial.

Ornamental uses of the ostrich egg are also numerous. In modern times they hang from the ceilings of North African dwellings, and have been observed adorning the roofs of straw huts in the Sudan. The eggs may even be gilded and placed in chandeliers, as known from a monastery in the Sinai. The rela­tively thick, smooth shells make an excellent raw material for small or­naments. Disc beads and other shapes cut from the egg’s relatively thick shell have been used in pen­dants, necklaces, belts, and anklets since Neolithic times, and are still made by the (Kung San people of the Kalahari desert in southern Africa (Fig. 8).

This short article comes from the full article, On Ostrich Eggs and Libyans–Traces of a Bronze Age People from Bates’ Island, Egypt

Cite This Article

Conwell, David. "Ostrich Eggs." Expedition Magazine 29, no. 3 (November, 1987): -. Accessed February 25, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/ostrich-eggs/


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