Decorating Eggs in the Ancient World

It’s Easter! Which means everyone’s developed a bizarre preoccupation with eggs. How we chortle as adverts everywhere wheel out the same old egg-puns as if they’re the first to think of them. Egg-straordinary! Never mind; it means we get some chocolate. I’m particularly partial to Mini Eggs myself.

As you probably know, for many it’s traditional to paint and decorate eggs at Easter. Like many Christian festivals, there’s a healthy vestige of earlier practices in Easter, as the Church sought to appropriate and sanitise pagan spring fertility celebrations. The name Easter itself most likely derives from the Germanic goddess Ēastre, which in turn seems to come from the Proto-Indo-European word for dawn, and so is cognate with classical goddesses such as Eos or Aurora. So it’s no surprise to learn that decorating eggs is a practice with roots much older than Christianity. In fact we have painted eggs from the ancient Near East which date as far back as the third millennium BC.

How do egg-shells manage to survive for nearly five thousand years in the archaeological record?

Two answers. One: lots of them were found in tombs. Two: they used ostrich eggs.

Minoan egg

Minoan ostrich egg rhyton. Late Bronze Age

Kish egg

Egg from Kish, Mesopotamia. 3rd Millennium BC

Ostrich eggs are notoriously large and strong, and were prized in antiquity as prestigious objects with various uses including in cult and as containers. As you can see, a lot of the eggs have been converted into vessels, particularly rhyta, which are pouring vessels often used for libations in religious rituals. As well as their intrinsic desirability as the ultimate egg, they were also hard to obtain. Ostriches are large, fast and dangerous birds and hunting them seems to have been a high-status pursuit of the elite, much like hunting other big game like lions. If you happened to live somewhere ostriches didn’t, such as the Aegean, then you had the added rarity that comes from foreign import. On top of this, Near Eastern texts and iconography suggest that ostriches were associated with a suitably Eastery set of themes: fertility, birth, resurrection and immortality.[1]

 

Tut's ostrich fan

Fan centre from tomb of Tutankhamun, Late Bronze Age. The king is shown hunting ostrich in his chariot. The fan itself would have been made from ostrich feathers.

It’s possible that painting the ostrich eggs made them just that extra bit more exclusive. The decoration is mostly geometric rather than figurative, which doesn’t lend itself to iconographic interpretations, but it’s certainly possible that the decoration had symbolic meanings which are now almost impossible to reconstruct.

Many of the eggs come from royal contexts – palaces such as this broken one from the ‘throne room’ of the Late Bronze Age Royal Palace at Ugarit:

IMG

Painted ostrich egg from Royal Palace of Ugarit. Picture from Matoïan 2008.

Or from tombs like this 7th-century BC Phoenician painted egg from the Isis Tomb at Vulci in Etruria:

BM Phoen ostrich egg

Phoenician egg from Etruscan tomb. Picture from British Museum.

or these from Jericho or Toumba tou Skourou on Cyprus:

IMG_0001

Jericho egg. Picture from Matoïan 2008, after Kenyon 1965.

IMG_0002

Toumba tou Skourou egg. Picture from Matoïan 2008, after Caubet 1983.

And it wasn’t just paint that could be used. This egg from a tholos tomb at Mycenae in Greece is decorated with gold and copper, rather like the ancient equivalent of a Fabergé egg:

Mycenae

Of course, decorating ostrich eggs never went out of fashion and isn’t confined to the Near East and Mediterranean. Here are a couple of 19th-century AD examples from South Africa and Japan respectively.

SA Egg

Japan egg

So, this Easter, if you’re decorating eggs why not take some inspiration from your ancient predecessors. Even if you can’t get hold of an ostrich egg (Waitrose sells them for £20, apparently. Because of course they do.), you can still give some ancient Near Eastern designs on whatever chicken, duck or snake eggs you have to hand! Let me know if you make anything good.

[1] V. Matoïan 2008 – Un œuf d’autruche peint découvert lors du dégagement de la « salle du trône » du Palais royal d’Ougarit, in V. Matoïan (ed.) – Le mobilier du Palais royal d’Ougarit (Ras Shamra-Ougarit XVII), 113

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