1,700-year-old Intact Egg Found at Roman Site
Archaeologists in Britain have made a very unusual find, but one that is very significant. They have uncovered an unbroken egg that is roughly 1,700 years old and dates to the Roman Empire. It is the only complete egg from this era ever found in the British Isles. This unlikely discovery is important as it is providing insights into the beliefs and the ritualist practices of Romano-Britons.
The find was made by Oxford Archaeology which has been working on the Berryfields housing and community development site near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire for nine years. Here they found “a middle Iron Age settlement and the agricultural hinterland of the putative nucleated Roman settlement of Fleet Marston” according to Oxford Archaeology. This was situated on a major thoroughfare and was once an important trading, administrative, and agricultural center.
The Egg Was Discovered in a Roman Town
Down the years the archaeologists have uncovered many remarkable artifacts, dating from between the 1st century AD and the 4th century AD when the site was abandoned. Among the items found were coins, pottery, and metal items. The Daily Mail reports that they all throw light on “Roman Fleet Marston which had previously only been understood from incidental finds”.
Archaeologists were working in the area, which is very waterlogged, when they came across an unusual number of deposits in a pit. These were largely items that were organic in nature and they would typically have disintegrated over time. Among the items that were recovered were leather shoes, wooden tools, and a wicker basket, which may have once held bread.
The remains of an oak tree and wooden piles from a bridge were also unearthed from the waterlogged earth. Edward Biddulph, of Oxford Archaeology, stated that “the pit was still waterlogged, and this has preserved a remarkable collection of organic objects” according to the BBC.
The egg was discovered at the water-logged ancient Roman site. (Oxford Archaeology)
Chicken Eggs From the Roman Empire
Among the organic items found were four eggs, that turned out to be chicken eggs. They were all found intact but as they were being moved, three of them broke, as they were so fragile. The broken eggs emitted a very powerful and unpleasant smell, this was not a surprise as they were centuries old, after all.
However, one of the eggs was extracted intact from the muddy ground, after some painstaking work. This was astonishing as only fragments of eggshells had been found, previously in Britain, mainly from Roman-era graves.
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Archaeologists endeavored to prevent breaking the egg as they removed it. (Oxford Archaeology)
The archaeologist had found the only complete chicken egg from Roman Britain. To find any intact egg from the past is very rare but to find one from 1,700 years ago is astonishing. The BBC reports that Mr. Biddulph, said the discovery of the complete egg and other organic items “was more than could be foreseen”.
The Ancient Egg Was at the Site of a Roman-era Wishing Well
To understand why there were eggs and other items simply left in the ground we need to understand the area where they were found. It appears that the site was once a waterlogged pit, which was possibly used in a similar way to a wishing well.
People would toss objects into the pit for good luck. A Roman mirror and some pots had also been discovered in the location with the organic items.
It is also possible that the eggs and the basket, were offerings of food to the dead, possibly after a burial. This was very common in funerary customs in the classical era. Eggs were highly symbolic, for many ancient peoples and “In Roman society, eggs symbolized fertility and rebirth” according to the Daily Mail.
The remains of an oak and willow basket were also discovered at the same site as the ancient egg. (Oxford Archaeology)
They were associated in particular with the Roman gods Mercury and Mithras, a deity of Persian origin. The eggs may have been placed in the pit to win the favor of one of these gods.
The excavation was financed by the construction company, Berryfields Consortium. The dig finished in 2016 and for the past three years, researchers have been carefully analyzing the numerous finds. A monograph that “describes the results of the fieldwork and analysis of an exceptional range of the artifactual and environmental evidence” reports Oxford Archaeology, was published this year.
Archaeologists at work in the waterlogged pit. (Oxford Archaeology)
Top image: The Roman-era egg was cast into a watery pit, possibly as part of a funeral rite. Source: Oxford Archaeology.
By Ed Whelan