Manipulated Luxuries?

Decorated ostrich eggs were traded as luxury items from the Middle East to the western Mediterranean during the Iron Age (c.1200-300 BCE). The eggs were engraved, painted, and occasionally embellished with ivory, precious metals and faience fittings.

While we note their presence as unusual vessels in funerary and dedicatory contexts, we know little about how or from where they were sourced, decorated and traded.

Ostrich egg decorated with carved mythical creatures, from the Isis tomb, Vulci, Italy Image credit: © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)

As ostriches are capable of ranging across large areas of North Africa, and the Middle East, their eggs could have been obtained from a wide area. Ostrich bones, however, are rarely found in excavated Iron Age sites.

Furthermore, contemporary iconography depicts ostriches as wild beasts conquered by a king. This would suggest eggs were obtained from the wild, if it was not for the well-known Assyrian 'lion hunt' reliefs showing that wild lions were penned and their killing staged.

Could egg acquisition therefore have involved captive ostriches rather than opportunistic retrieval? Did this luxury trade stem from a managed environment?

Our study assesses if it is possible to identify where ancient Mediterranean ostrich eggs originated (via isotopic indicators of geographic origin, and production techniques) and whether they were gathered from wild or captive birds (via isotopic indicators of diet). This is a preliminary step towards understanding their manufacture, trade, economic and social value during the Iron Age.

Fragment of ostrich egg carved on the interior surface, from Naukratis, Egypt Image credit: © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)
A clutch of carved ostrich eggs from the Isis tomb, Vulci, Italy Image credit: © Tamar Hodos, University of Bristol (with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum)
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