Last one in the pit is a rotten (Roman) egg!

Archaeologists have discovered a perfectly intact Roman-era chicken egg in a pit at Berryfields in Buckinghamshire. As a matter of fact, archaeologists retrieved four whole eggs from that pit, but three of them were so fragile they broke on contact and graced the company with the unmistakable aroma of 2,000-year-old rotten egg. That makes the one survivor the only complete Roman egg known in Britain, and only the second one ever found anywhere. (The other was discovered in a child’s grave in Rome, clutched in the child’s skeletonized hand.)

Originally used to malt grain for brewing beer, the ancient pit was and still is waterlogged which has allowed for the preservation of organic remains. When its use for malting came to an end in the late 3rd century, people began to use it as a sort of impromptu wishing well, throwing a variety of objects into it for good luck. In addition to the eggs, the team discovered an extremely rare basket made of woven oak bands and willow rods, leather shoes and wooden tools.

Archaeologist Edward Biddulph said the extent and range of discoveries “was more than could be foreseen”. […]

Eggs were associated with fertility, rebirth and the Roman gods Mithras and Mercury.

Eggshell fragments have been found before, usually in Roman graves, but this is the “only complete Roman egg known in Britain” and “a genuinely unique discovery”, Mr Biddulph said.

He believes the eggs and bread basket could have been food offerings cast into the pit as part of a religious ceremony during a funeral procession.

Berryfields is in the area of the medieval town of Fleet Marston. Previous archaeological finds like dense pottery remains and hundreds of coins indicate there was a Romano-British settlement preceding Fleet Marston. A major Roman road linking  Verulamium (modern-day St Albans) and Corinium Dobunnorum (modern-day Cirencester) traversed the site, intersecting with several smaller roads. That prime crossroads location suggests the Roman settlement may have been a market town and/or government administrative center.

9 thoughts on “Last one in the pit is a rotten (Roman) egg!

  1. The Etruscans preceded the Romans and are alleged to have migrated from Asia Minor(Turkey). I have often wondered what the couple on the Etruscan tomb might have been holding in their hands. Could it be they were holding at least one egg, and could it be that tradition survived?

  2. Indeed, the “Lemnos stele” inscription (from Kaminia in Lemnos, ASIA MINOR) begins –from right to left– with “hulaieš:naφuθ:šiaši maraš:mav sialχveiš:aviš…”. Comprehensible is the phrase aviš sialχviš (“aged sixty”), reminiscent of Etruscan avils maχs śealχisc (“and aged sixty-five”), but is according to some this -instead- has to be interpreted as (“aged fourty”) and (“aged fourty-five”).

    Completely unknown are, notably, the words for “EGG” (or I was simply unable to find them). To a certain extent it is unclear, which of śa and huθ mean “four” and “six” respectively, but the Etruscan numbers are most likely:

    1 θu
    2 zal
    3 ci
    4 śa
    5 maχ
    6 huθ
    7 semφ
    8 cezp
    9 nurφ
    10 śar

    When it comes to “eggs”, the Greek term “αβγά” (avgá) is similar to “oeufs” and “ovos” (the Latin original ‘ova’) and “eggs”. The Lemnian and the Etruscan words might have been somewhere in between. The Ancient Greek phrase, however, would be ᾠόν (‘oon’, or in plural, ‘oa’), and this might explain some of the difficulties.

    The “Liber Linteus” (Zagrabiensis) is the longest Etruscan text and the only extant linen book, dated to the 3rd century BCE. The fabric of the book was preserved when it was used for mummy wrappings in Ptolemaic Egypt. Certain local gods mentioned in the text allow the Liber Linteus’s place of production to be narrowed down to a small area in the southeast of Tuscany near Lake Trasimeno, where four major Etruscan cities were located: modern day Arezzo, Perugia, Chiusi and Cortona. In case the book really is a “religious calendar”, there might be numerals. If there are any eggs, they are obviously not easy to find.


  3. This aligns well with my report that during a recent dig at a temple site in Egypt, archaeologists had discovered a large quantity of eggshells. The ancients, as now, liked to take home souvenirs of their pilgrimages and an industry to manufacture them had grown up around the temple. This find finally proved that you can’t make an amulet without breaking eggs.

  4. jane, when it says that the offerings were ‘cast’ into the pit it probably does not mean that everything was thrown. Consider how fishermen use the word ‘cast’ to get the hook and float into the right location so that they land as gently as possible in the water. I suspect that things like coins were gently thrown or dropped, and more delicate things like eggs were just dropped through the water surface.

    Of course, if the eggs were fresh they would sink, but if they were old they would have floated. My question is whether fresh eggs in water eventually float to the surface?

  5. trevor, good point about the casting of nets, and now I’m wondering the same thing about whether the eggs will eventually float. Being a self proclaimed geek, and having the pleasure of living alone, I’ll conduct a small experiment with a fresh egg and see whether it eventually floats. Then I will carefully carry it to the garbage can.

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