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2500-year-old eggs found in China.

Tomb Raiders Discover 2,500-Year-Old Eggs From Ancient Chinese Death Ritual


A team of Chinese archaeologists from the Nanjing Archaeological Institute and the Liyang Museum have made a highly-unusual discovery inside a tomb in eastern China near the ancient capital city of Nanjing. While excavating, they unearthed a large clay jar believed to have been buried about 2,500 years ago and inside it they found collection of about 20 greenish blue eggs.

The eggs were excavated from the second to lowest layer of a six-leveled ancient burial complex consisting a total of 38 chamber tombs. According to an article in the Daily Mail the ancient eggs “date back more than two millennia to what is known as China’s Spring and Autumn period between (770-476BC).”

In the same tomb, beside the eggs, archaeologists discovered “porcelain cups, pots, plates and other cookware” which informs specialists that the owner of the tomb must have been an ‘important figure’ in the family to have owned a full cooking set.

Pots and other food containers were found as well as the eggs. (Xinhua News)

Pots and other food containers were found as well as the eggs. (Xinhua News)

Experts in Chinese culture believe that the deceased's family buried plenty of food in containers so that they didn’t starve in the afterlife, but this plan seems to have been thwarted by nature. One of the archaeologists, Zhou Hengming, told Nanjing-based Modern Express that the inside of the eggs will have degraded over time and that only the shells have been left behind because they are ”formed largely by calcium.”

The Coffining Of Sacred Eggs

A research article published in the National Library Board of Singapore describes ancient Chinese death rituals and explains that when an important person died every care was taken to assure their passage in the afterlife was as organized as possible. Chinese folk religions interpreted death as a disruption in cosmological balance and a series of death rituals aimed at re-establishing the perceived universal harmony.

Ancient Chinese people believed that the dead ’s soul influenced the destiny of the living and when death occurred the person’s living room was immediately cleared of furniture, because death was considered to be a ‘polluting’ element. After washing and dressing the deceased’s body, the  rulian (入殓), or “entering the wood” ritual was performed in which “A mirror and a bag of grain are placed in the coffin to ‘light the way’ and to ensure that the deceased will be well fed in the afterworld.” It must have been during this death ritual that the eggs were placed inside the tomb.

A pot of eggs was found in a tomb in Shangyang Village, Liyang, China. (

A pot of eggs was found in a tomb in Shangyang Village, Liyang, China. (

Why Eggs? And Not, Say, Oranges, Ham Or Saffron?

Archaeologists in China are calling the discovered eggs “millennium eggs” which according to a BBC Technology article are also known as ‘year eggs’ and ‘black eggs’. By preserving eggs in “ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls for several months” this ancient preservation process made yokes turn dark green with a creamy consistency and egg whites turn into a brown translucent jelly, with a very salty and strong flavor.

Many cultures around the world identified eggs as being the source of new life and in Ancient Egypt, for example, the world was believed to have emerged from a ‘cosmic egg’. In Ancient Greece and Rome the March equinox was celebrated with colorful eggs that were given as gifts and hung up around homes. Representing ‘new beginnings’ by the 4th century AD eggs began to serve as symbolic funeral offerings placed in Roman-Germanic tombs to encourage the deceased’s resurrection.

Archaeologist know that at least 5000 years ago ancient Chinese people painted eggs and offered them as gifts at the beginning of spring, around the equinox, and it is therefore most probable that these newly discovered eggs were offered to the deceased not only for eating in the afterlife, but more so, to symbolically encourage the resurrection of the deceased’s soul.

Top image: 2500-year-old eggs found in China.   Source: Xinhua News

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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