1000-Year-Old Chicken Egg in Israeli Cesspit Dubbed a “Cracking Find”
As part of a salvage dig in advance of the construction of an urban expansion project in Yavne, a city in the Central District of Israel, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) have come across something unexpected. Discovered cushioned in human waste in an ancient cesspit, they have uncovered a complete 1,000-year-old-egg which has been described as “an extremely rare find.”
Apart from the 1,000-year-old egg, the team found three Islamic-period Coptic bone dolls in the Yavne cesspit. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)
The Yavne Excavation and the 1,000-Year-Old-Egg
Excavations at Yavne by the IAA have uncovered an ancient industrial complex dating back to the Byzantine era which operated over several hundred years. So far their digging has been fruitful. Back in April 2021, the team found a 1,600-year-old multicolored mosaic decorated with geometric motifs. Hidden under a “whitish patina that had coated it for years,” the IAA used acid to reveal the colorful and ornate design. This stunning artifact is set to be put on display in the municipality of Yavne.
Now, the IAA have announced that while excavating a cesspit, basically an ancient toilet, within the ancient industrial area they came across the rare find of a complete chicken egg measuring 6 cm (2.34 in) tall. Incredibly, the 1,000-year-old egg had managed to survive with just a few cracks for over 1,000 years. The Times of Israel put this discovery into context when they quoted one of the archaeologists, Alla Nagorsky, who highlighted that “even today, eggs rarely survive for long in supermarket cartons. It's amazing to think this is a 1,000-year-old find!”
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This wasn’t the only thing to come out of the ancient cesspit. According to Haaretz, the other items discovered within the small pit, which measured 1.2 meters (4 ft) by 80 centimeters (2.62 ft) and was 1.3 meters deep (4.27 ft), helped the scientists date the egg. These included three Coptic dolls buried within the waste, believed to have been toys. These kinds of dolls appear in the archaeological record around the time of the Arab conquest in both Palestine and Egypt. There was also an oil lamp of a kind made in the late Abbasid period.
Back in April, the IAA excavations at Yavne also uncovered a stunning and colorful mosaic. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority)
Eggs in Archaeology and Israeli History
While ostrich eggs are a common find due to their thick shells, in the history of archaeology “hardly any whole chicken eggs have been preserved” due to their fragile shells, explained Lee Perry-Gal, another IAA archaeologist and a expert on ancient poultry, in The Daily Mail. In this case it appears that the 1,000-year-old egg survived because, in the words of The Times of Israel, it was “preserved in poop.”
The fragile nature of the egg was spotlighted by the fact that it unfortunately cracked when brought to the IAA labs for further testing. They did however find some yolk inside the ancient egg. “We're going to take the remains and extract some collagen to try to do DNA sequences,” said Perry-Gal.
While eating chicken is a common occurrence in this day and age, it wasn’t always the case. Chickens were first domesticated about 10,000 years ago for cockfights in Southeast Asia and China. Nevertheless, Smithsonian Magazine reported that archaeologists published the earliest evidence of poultry production back in 2015 when they uncovered a collection of thousands of chicken bones in Maresha, Israel, “located on a trade route between Jerusalem and Egypt.”
The vast quantity of chicken bones, which dated to some time between the 4th and 2nd century BC, and the knife marks on them, pointed to these birds having been raised for consumption. Led by Lee Perry-Gall, the 2015 study was published in PNAS. The next time chicken-eating in large quantities appears in the archaeological record is in the first century BC in Europe.
Returning to the recent discovery of the 1,000-year-old egg, the IAA press release explained that “there is a marked decrease in the percentage of pig bones at sites in the region, reflecting the prohibition on eating pork” from the 7th century AD. “Families needed a ready protein substitute that does not require cooling and preservation, and they found it in eggs and chicken meat,” stressed Dr. Perry-Gal.
Close-up image of the 1,000-year-old egg unearthed at the Yavne cesspit. (Dafna Gazit / Israel Antiquities Authority)
Criticism of Salvage Excavations in Israel
The excavations at Yavne have been underwritten by the Israel Lands Authority in preparation for the new development in the area. Due to the wealth of historic treasures as yet to be discovered, Israeli law deems that salvage excavations have to take place prior to construction projects. In fact, Israel has an enormously high concentration of archaeological sites, due to its being an epicenter of faith and religion throughout history.
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Nevertheless, the Israeli government has been criticized for prioritizing development and construction over archaeological remains. In a 2020 article published in Nature, Josie Glausiusz decried that “hundreds of Israel’s archaeological sites are vanishing under concrete.” In the midst of a huge population boom, Israel is set to become “one of the most densely populated [countries] on the planet.”
The IAA salvage excavation in Yavne has uncovered an ancient industrial area in advance of expansion and development. (Assaf Peretz / Israel Antiquities Authority)
This fact is fueling construction and is the reason for why “most excavations in the country are salvage digs,” a term used to describe excavations which document remains in the face of development plans. In Israel, salvage digs are managed by the IAA. Uzi Dahari, former deputy director of the IAA, explains that there is an inherent conflict of interest in the fact that the “majority of the IAA’s budget comes from the salvage digs before construction projects,” most of which are being financed by the government itself.
Others have criticized these salvage excavations because of the speed with which they are conducted. “It is not the fault of the archaeologists but of the system that forces rapid excavations,” stressed Raphael Greenberg, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist. Further criticism argues that sites related to religions other than Judaism are not given the attention they deserve, and that Israel is using archaeology as a weapon against Palestine.
The sheer number of archaeological sites and excavations in Israel is striking for its size (35,000 sites, according to Nature). Some claim that it would be impossible to uncover this quantity of history without the funding provided by modern-day construction projects. Regardless, the speed of these salvage excavations does beg the question of how much history is being lost due to today’s politics and population pressure.
Top image: The archaeologist Alla Nagorsky with the 1,000-year-old egg excavated in Yavne, Israel. Source: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority
By Cecilia Bogaard