Exchanging Ostrich Eggs in Antiquity

By Owain Williams

Over Easter (or Paschal), it is not uncommon for people to exchange eggs of some kind, from colourful hard-boiled chicken eggs to chocolate eggs. When you think about it, exchanging eggs is a strange tradition. However, it turns out we have been exchanging eggs for millennia. Rather than chicken eggs (chickens may have only arrived in Europe and North Africa in the first millennium BC), it was ostrich eggs that were exchanged.

The fauna of the Middle East and North Africa was quite different thousands of years ago from what we might think of it today. Animals such as the ostrich (Hodos, 2020, p. 2) and the hippopotamus (Horwitz and Tchernov, 1990) once roamed from the Nile to the Euphrates and beyond. Known to the Assyrians as lurmu, ostriches appear in the literary record, and on reliefs and seals from both Bronze Age and Iron Age Assyria. Indeed, the motif of running ostriches may have been a cultural favourite of the seventh century BC in Mesopotamia (Allenda, 2005, p. 100). Despite this prevalence of iconographic representations of ostriches, ostrich bones are rarely found in the archaeological record. Yet ostrich eggshells, an extremely durable material, have been found in a variety of contexts.

A seal from ca. 725 - 675 BC Mesopotamia.

Some of the earliest examples of ostrich eggs as luxury goods come from predynastic Egypt. In the fourth millennium BC, ostrich eggshells were used as grave goods in burials at el-Kabada, Egypt (Midant-Reynes, 2000, p. 228). A vase made of an ostrich egg was found in a tomb in Mycenae, it was likely intended to demonstrate the “wealth and power of the Mycenaean elite in the sixteenth century” (Kelder, et al., 2018, p. 13). In addition to their eggs, ostrich feathers were also highly valued, as indicated by the ostrich feather fan found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, which depicts the young pharaoh hunting ostriches from his chariot.

The ostrich fan from Tutankhamun's tomb.

Ostrich eggshell vessels were not just used in the Bronze Age. They have been found throughout the Iron Age Mediterranean. The most famous examples of ostrich eggshell goods are likely those found in the Isis Tomb at Vulci, dated to ca. 625–550 BC. However, the largest number of ostrich eggshells found in the Mediterranean come from the Phoenician necropolis in Villaricos in southern Spain (Polzer, 2014, p. 237).

More remarkable than all the finds discussed so far, however, is that ostrich eggshells have been discovered in Bronze Age and Iron Age shipwrecks. Three ostrich eggshells were found in the Uluburun shipwreck, dated to ca. 1300 BC, one of which was found intact (Pulak, 2008, p. 294). Similarly, the Bajo de la Campana shipwreck, dated to ca. 600 BC, has a number of ostrich eggshell fragments among the artefacts, some of which are rim pieces with a bevelled edge, suggesting that the eggs were worked prior to their transportation (Polzer, 2014, p. 237).

An ostrich eggshell from Villaricos, Spain.

It is remarkable how small archaeological finds afford us a view into the lives of so many people from thousands of years ago. From the hunters who acquired the eggs from ostrich nests – no small feat, given how dangerous ostriches are – to the artisans who carved the decorations and the sailors who manned the merchant vessels that sailed the length of the Mediterranean, the trade in ostrich eggs is just one example of how interconnected the ancient world really was.


Albenda P (2005) Ornamental wall painting in the art of the Assyrian empire (Leiden).

T. Hodos, ‘Eggstraordinary artefacts: decorated ostrich eggs in the eastern Mediterranean world’, Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, vol. 7 (2020), 1-7.

L.K. Horwitz and E. Tchernov, 'Cultural and Environmental Implications of Hippopotamus Bone Remains in Archaeological Contexts in the Levant', Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, vol. 280 (1990), 67-76.

J.M. Kelder, S.E. Cole, and E.H. Cline (2018) ‘Memphis, Minos, and Mycenae: Bronze Age Contact between Egypt and the Aegean’, in J. Spier, T. Potts, and S.E. Cole (eds.) Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World (Los Angeles), 9-17.

B. Midant-Reynes, The Prehistory of Egypt: From the First Egyptians to the First Pharaohs. Trans. I. Shaw (Oxford, 2000). 

M.E. Polzer, ‘The Bajo de la Campana Shipwreck and Colonial Trade in Phoenician Spain’, in J. Aruz, S.B. Graff, and Y. Rakic (eds.) Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age (New York, 2014), 230-242.

C. Pulak, ‘The Uluburun Shipwreck and Late Bronze Age Trade’, in J. Aruz, K. Benzel, and J.M. Evans (eds.) Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. (New York, 2008), 289-311. 

Leave a comment

Related Posts