The world’s oldest decorated eggs

Decorated eggs have become integral to the celebration of Easter today. The tradition of painting and decorating eggs pre-dates Christianity. Not only the Egyptians, but also the Greeks, Persians, and Romans decorated their eggs. Ostrich eggs were used as perfume containers, food containers, containers for water or milk, drinking cups, and bowls. The ancient Libyans offered ostrich eggs to the Egyptian pharaoh as items of tribute. Babylonian and Assyrian texts record its medicinal as well as its magical values. Ostrich eggs were used for religious purposes and were a symbol of fertility and prosperity. Eggs were offered in an­cient Greek sanctuaries and empty ostrich eggshells  were placed in graves as early as the 5th millen­nium B.C. Ostrich eggs also feature as symbols of resurrection on tombs found in Coptic churches in Egypt. Goblets fashioned from griffin eggs (actually ostrich eggs) were highly prized in medieval European courts. Magical eggs are guarded by dragons, and from eggs gods and heroes are born.

But it is a practice that goes way back in time. Long before the Egyptians , between approximately 65,000 and 55,000 years ago, African hunter-gatherers scratched on eggshells at Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa.

Image: Pierre-Jean Texier, Diepkloof project.ostrich_egg_shells-660x691

How about this 4,550 year old example from the Royal Cemetery at Ur (present-day Iraq). A gold vessel in the form of an Ostrich Egg.

At the Penn Museum

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It was covered with a mosaic of lapis lazuli, red limestone, and ostrich shell bits set in bitumen. This gold version of an ostrich egg was found in grave PG 779 along with other ostrich eggs.

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Ostrich Egg from the Royal Cemetery at Ur. 2600-2400 B.C.  ©Trustees of the British Museum British Museum

Until fairly recently ostriches were hunted by the Bedouin in the Near East. The ostrich in antiquity was hunted by  kings. Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) boasted about killing hundreds. The earliest eggs from Sumer date to 2600-2400 B.C. and probably came from the steppe country to the south of the Euphrates. Ostrich eggs were found during archaeological excavations in both burials and household context. The presence of remains of ostrich eggshells in the archaeological record is of a great interest. The shells permit radiocarbon analysis and are therefore an important dating material.

Ostriches were also hunted by the Egyptians from the earliest times. This practice was commemorated on Predynastic  rock-drawings along the Nile cliffs (Egypt and Nubia). Ostrich eggs were widely used during that period in order to serve various purposes. Their contents provided food and the emptied eggs were used as containers. In predynastic Egypt (Naqada II period) ostrich eggs were also placed in graves. The eggs were partially cut and used as containers or they were placed in the graves whole. Many of the eggs were decorated with paint or incised lines. Some were decorated with incised or painted designs which took the form of geometric decoration or drawings of birds and animals.

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Ostrich Egg found at Naqada in Egypt. ca. 3600 B.C.  Ashmolean Museum

The almost 4,000 year old Egyptian ostrich egg at the archaeological museum in Brussels   (Belgium) is decorated with 37 engraved spirals, running from the base to the top of the shell.

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The ancient Greeks placed decorated ostrich eggs or their representations in gold, silver or clay in graves. These 2,500 year old examples mimic black-figure pottery.

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Ancient Greek Pottery-imitation (decorated in black figures) of ostrich eggs Image source Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto

 

 

In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy came from an egg that had fallen from the moon. Alternatively she was born from an egg laid by Leda, queen of Sparta, after she had coupled with a swan (the god Zeus in disguise.) Later that night Leda also slept with her mortal husband. She laid two eggs; from on came Polydeuces and Helen, and from the other Castor and Clytemnestra.

This Greek terracotta egg (oon) is part of the collection at The Metropolitan Museum.

 

 

This example (ca. 420–410 B.C.) was found with another (now in Athens), and both originally had lids. The abduction scene has been interpreted as depicting Paris and Helen on their way to Troy, perhaps accompanied by Aeneas, who runs in front of their chariot. Aphrodite and Eros look on. The shape is pertinent to the subject, as Helen was hatched from an egg.

 

Here we have an example of a Minoan ostrich egg rhyton, ca. 1600 B.C., decorated with two octopuses in red paint.

 

 

An ostrich egg rhyton from Mycenae in Greece. The appliqué dolphins are made of faience. The underpiece attached to the base is made of gold foil over a wooden core. 1600 B.C.

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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. This Punic-Phoenician ostrich egg was found in the Isis Tomb at the Polledrara Cemetery of Vulci in Italy. It once had a mouthpiece and support to form a vessel. Four sphinxes are painted on the surface.

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ca. 2,600 year old ostrich egg found in the so-called Isis Tomb © The Trustees of the British Museum British Museum

 

The egg is in many cultures around the world a symbol of new life, fertility and rebirth. Nowruz, or “new day” in Persian, is an ancient festival that marks the beginning of spring and celebrates the rebirth of nature. It begins at the stroke of the vernal equinox, when the sun crosses the equator. This year it came early in the morning of March 20. Colored eggs are a symbolic item to represent fertility on this day. In Jewish custom, at the Seder meal the egg is a symbol of promise and traditionally it is the first food offered to Jewish mourners.

The tradition of using eggs in Easter celebrations has a long history and  is associated with legends. An ancient story recounts Mary Magdalene being summoned by Emperor Tiberius and stating that Christ had been resurrected. The skeptical emperor pointed to an egg and exclaimed, “Christ has not risen, no more than that egg is red”, after which the egg miraculously turned blood-red. Another Eastern Orthodox myth presents either Mary Magdalene or Mary, the mother of Jesus, placing a basket of eggs under the cross. The blood of Christ fell on the eggs, turning them red. According to another tale, Simon of Cyrene was an egg merchant who had to leave his basket of eggs to help Jesus carry the cross. When he returned, he found that his eggs had changed color. From a Christian perspective, Easter eggs are said to represent Jesus’ emergence from the tomb and resurrection.

In 1290, the English King Edward I obtained eggs that were “boiled and stained, or covered with leaf gold, and afterwards distributed to the royal household at Easter”. An egg in a silver case was sent from the Vatican to King Henry VIII (1491 –1547 A.D.).

The renowned Fabergé egg was first made in 1885 for Tsar Alexander III as an Easter present to his wife Tsaritsa Maria. It is crafted from gold with a white enamelled ‘shell’ opening to reveal its first surprise, a matt yellow gold yolk. This in turn opens to reveal a multi-coloured, gold hen that also opens. Originally, this contained a minute diamond replica of the Imperial Crown from which a small ruby pendant egg was suspended. Unfortunately these last two surprises have been lost.

 

 

Known as the Hen Egg, the first Fabergé egg is crafted from gold.

People were coloring eggs by one method or another in various parts of Britain, especially northern England, in the 18th century. Pace Eggs is a very old British tradition and method of colouring and dying eggs to be boiled and eaten on Good Friday and throughout the Easter weekend.  In some parts of Britain – mainly Lancashire in the North West, these eggs are rolled down a hill, the winner being the owner of the egg which goes the furthest and has the least cracks or breaks in it. It is also traditional to give one of these eggs to each person who visits your home throughout the Easter period.

In many myths, ranging from Egypt to the Far East, the initial process of creation and birth begins when a cosmic egg. Sometimes fertilized by a serpent but more often laid in the primeval sea by a giant bird. It gives form to chaos, and from it hatches the sun (the golden yolk) leading to the division of earth and sky and the multiplicity of life, natural and supernatural. The dominant symbol for the mystery of original creation is the egg.  Throughout the world, the egg is a propitious symbol, suggesting luck, wealth and health. An egg has a deep, symbolic meaning. With its symbolic meaning in mind I wish you a Happy Easter.

 

 

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