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Monday, May 20, 2019

Egypt Centre Collection Blog: What is so “Egg-citing” about Ostrich Egg Fragments?

Monday, 20 May 2019

What is so "Egg-citing" about Ostrich Egg Fragments?

The blog post for this week is an entry by Sam Powell, an MA student and Egypt Centre volunteer.

One of my assignments as part of my MA at Swansea University was to research an object from the Egypt Centre. Throughout my degree, the hands-on experience at the museum has been very valuable, and so I'm always excited when we get to do object-based learning. For the Beyond Mummies: Mortuary Data in Ancient Egypt module, I have been researching various aspects of the Predynastic burials at Armant. Fortunately for me, the Egypt Centre has a lot of objects excavated at this site. After searching the catalogue, I was intrigued to find some fragments of ostrich eggshell (AR50/3444) which are not on display. They were excavated by Robert Mond (1867–1938) and Oliver Humphrys Myers (1903–1966) in the 1930s, under the auspices of the Egypt Exploration Society, and are known to come from grave 1606. Of note, the original photograph of the fragments in the excavation report shows fifteen fragments (fig. 1), whereas only thirteen fragments remain (see fig. 2). On examination of the object register in the same report, only thirteen pieces are listed indicating that the two additional fragments must have been lost between being photographed and being recorded.

Fig. 1: Ostrich shell fragments, as shown in Plate I.13 of unpublished excavation notes
(the two missing fragments are circled).

The fragments are of varying sizes, ranging from 40mm by 32mm to 10mm by 5mm. They seem to be of a fairly uniform thickness and colouration, suggesting they came from the same egg. The surface area amounts to approximately 360mm2, which would only account for a very small proportion of an entire egg. At Armant, the published material notes only one eggshell fragment from grave 1417. The only mention of the fragment frustratingly states that the "fragment of an ostrich eggshell require(s) no comment" (Mond & Myers 1937, 135). The unpublished material from the cemetery yields ostrich eggshell in graves 1631—along with an ostrich eggshell bead also in the Egypt Centre's collection (AR50/3451)—and 1666, along with our fragments from 1606.

Fig. 2: AR50/3444

Ostrich eggs, even in fragmentary form, are rare in Upper Egyptian graves. Muir and Friedman (2011) located only four known examples; Naqada Tomb 1480 (in which the fragmentary egg had been used as a replacement for the missing head of the deceased!), Naqada T4, Naqada 108, and from Abadiya B262. Ostriches are known to have lived in ancient Egypt since Predynastic times, as evident from rock art. Physical remains of the ostrich itself are rare in the archaeological record (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Ostriches are no longer native to Egypt

The purpose of eggshell in a funerary context, however, is unclear. Shell fragments were made into jewellery, such bracelets and beads, and so the fragments may have been included in the burial as unworked material. It is also possible that the eggs may represent food provisions for the deceased, although in later offering lists eggs do not appear as a foodstuff. The shells may have functioned as cups or bowls, yet examples rarely occur from settlements, Additionally, given the fragile nature of shell as opposed to more durable pottery alternatives, it wouldn't have been very practical in a daily domestic context.

What I find particularly interesting is the idea that ostrich shell may have had some symbolic and/or ritual function, connecting to rebirth and regeneration (Muir & Friedman 2011). Graves 1417 and 1631 at Armant are both identified as containing the remains of a child. Unfortunately, the occupants of the other two graves (including 1606) are unknown. Although this is only a small sample of burials, it is not impossible to imagine the egg as a symbol of rebirth, and as part of a ritual custom with close connotations to childhood (Nordström 1972). These unworked fragments, whilst not amounting to enough to constitute an entire egg (fig. 4), may have been considered enough to represent a complete egg ideologically (Muir & Friedman 2011).

Fig. 4: Size comparison between ostrich and hen's eggs

AR50/344 at first glance is seemingly unimportant; overlooked by the excavators, and not on display, and yet it can yield a surprising amount of information with a little research. The inclusion of these fragments of ostrich eggshell in Armant grave 1606 may reflect the hope for rebirth in the afterlife, and feels particularly poignant if the association with child burials is correct.

Volunteers and regular visitors may have noticed the new display panels being installed in some of the cases recently, including the Predynastic case in the House of Life (fig. 5). I would love to see these fragments added to the case; if you agree, please let the Egypt Centre staff know in the comments!

Fig. 5: The new interpretation panel in the Predynastic case

Adams, B. (1988) Predynastic Egypt. Shire Egyptology 7. Princess Risborough: Shire.
Bard, K. (1988) 'A Quantitative Analysis of the Predynastic Burials in Armant Cemetery 1400–1500'. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 74: 39–55.
Ezz El-Din, D. 2010. 'Ostrich Eggs of Predynastic Egypt'. Journal of General Union of Arab Archaeologists 11: 40–56.
Houlihan, P. F. and S. M. Goodman (1986). The Birds of Ancient Egypt. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.
Mond, R. and O. H. Myers (1937). Cemeteries of Armant I (Text). Memoir of the Egypt Exploration Society [42]. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
———. (1937). Cemeteries of Armant I (Plates). Memoir of the Egypt Exploration Society [42]. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
Muir, A. and R. Friedman (2011) 'Analysis of Predynastic Ostrich Eggshells from Hierakonpolis and Beyond'. In Egypt at its Origins 3: Proceedings of the Third International Conference "Origin of the State: Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt", London, 27th July–1st August 2008, ed. R. F. Friedman and P. N. Fiske. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 205. Leuven: Peeters. 571–593. 
Nordström, H.-Å. (1972) Neolithic and A-Group Sites, 2 vols. The Scandinavian Joint Expedition to Sudanese Nubia. Stockholm; Copenhagen: Läromedelsbörlagen; Munksgaard. 
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