Archaeologists excavating the ruins of Sardis, onetime capital of Lydia, home of King Croesus whose control of gold deposits in the area made his name synonymous with enormous wealth, in western Turkey have unearthed two votive deposits buried under the floor of a Roman-era home. Both votives have the same ingredient list: a coin, a group of pointed metal nail or needle-like objects and an egg, all placed inside pottery vessels which were covered and buried. One was a jug found broken into pieces, its fragile egg smashed. The other was a bowl topped with an inverted bowl to act as lid and its egg was found intact except for a hole that was deliberately poked in its shell in antiquity probably to remove the contents so the egg wouldn’t rot and make the newly renovated home it was supposed to bless smell like sulfur.
The votive pottery dates to between 54 and 68 A.D. when Sardis was part of the Roman province of Asia. A few decades before then in 17 A.D. Sardis had been nearly leveled by a massive earthquake. Pliny the Elder called it “the greatest earthquake which has occurred in our memory.” Tacitus described the extent of the devastation in Annals II: 47:
In the same year, twelve important cities of Asia collapsed in an earthquake, the time being night, so that the havoc was the less foreseen and the more devastating. Even the usual resource in these catastrophes, a rush to open ground, was unavailing, as the fugitives were swallowed up in yawning chasms. Accounts are given of huge mountains sinking, of former plains seen heaved aloft, of fires flashing out amid the ruin. As the disaster fell heaviest on the Sardians, it brought them the largest measure of sympathy, the Caesar promising ten million sesterces, and remitting for five years their payments to the national and imperial exchequers.
So Sardis was rebuilt, thanks to a significant capital investment and tax breaks from the emperor Tiberius. The scars from the earthquake never did fade, however, and the city never regained its former splendor. The house in which the votives were found was built over the ruins of a previous structure that archaeologists believe was destroyed in the earthquake of 17 A.D.. It’s possible that the homeowners had that destruction in mind when they buried the votives under their new floor to protect it from any future such ravages.
They could also have been a simple purification ritual. Burying votives in a wall or under a floor was a relatively common practice in antiquity. The Lustratio ceremony, a Greco-Roman purification ritual, was used to bless and purify buildings after new construction or renovation. Eggs were used in the Lustratio ceremony. An egg was placed on the fire and if it cracked, it was a bad portent warning the owner of danger to the property. The Sardis home shows signs of having been renovated several times.
The coin found in the bowl along with the egg and pointy metal things may also provide a clue to the ritual purpose of the votives.
“The coin has a portrait of Nero on the front. The original reverse was hammered flat, and the image of a lion engraved in its place, which is very odd.” Expert numismatists have never seen anything like it. “The image of the lion is important because it is emblematic of the Lydian kings and of their native mother goddess Cybele,” [University of Wisconsin-Madison art history professor Nicholas] Cahill says.
There are references in the ancient sources connected Cybele and eggs. In Juvenal’s Satire V, the priests of Cybele (called “Galli” which also means roosters) are presented as effective against “black hobgoblins, and dangers from a broken egg.” That danger was sorcery, mainly. Pierced or broken eggs were an indication that they had been used in spell-casting.
Cybele isn’t the only deity with a possible votive egg connection in Sardis. In 1911, Princeton University archaeologists led by Howard Crosby Butler unearthed the temple of Artemis, long since buried by landslides. They found a number of vessels holding coins, eggs and pointy metal objects, but at the time there was little interest in such quotidian items and excavations were interrupted by World War I. When Butler returned in 1922, he found most of the artifacts had been destroyed or stolen. According to notes from the 1911 excavation, the votive eggs at the temple of Artemis were also deliberately perforated in antiquity.