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Archaeologists ‘astonished’ by discovery of ancient Roman egg

Researchers were “astonished” by a rare discovery inside a “unique” bird egg preserved for more than 1,700 years: it still contains liquid.

The egg was discovered during excavations that took place between 2007 and 2016 at a site known as Berryfields in Buckinghamshire, southeast England.

During the excavations, archaeologists discovered a large waterlogged pit or well dating between 270 and 300 AD, during Britain’s Roman period.

Inside the pit, archaeologists found pottery vessels, coins, leather shoes, animal bones and a woven basket containing a cache of eggs.

“The eggs were particularly interesting because they were a rare and exciting find. Despite the incredibly fragile nature of the eggs, the team on site was able to recover one intact,” reads a blog post from the team at Heritage and Archeology of Buckinghamshire Council.

“In Britain this was a unique find,” said Edward Biddulph, senior project manager at Oxford Archeology (OA), a charity involved in the Berryfields excavation. News week.

To learn more about the egg, which was likely laid by a hen, OA curator Dana Goodburn-Brown took it to Chris Dunmore, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Kent, England, in August 2023.

Dunmore and Goodburn-Brown had the egg micro-CT scanned at the university and discovered it was full of fluid and contained an air bubble.

The preserved egg from the British Roman period found at the Berryfields site in Buckinghamshire, England. Recent research has shown that the egg still contains liquid inside.

© Oxford Archeology

“These are probably the remains of the yolk and white, and certainly when two other eggs found with the intact egg broke apart after exposure to air, they released a liquid that gave off a sulfurous odor, suggesting that the eggs contained the original contents,” Biddulph said.

In September 2023, OA brought the egg to the National History Museum (NHM) in London and discussed the discovery with Douglas Russell, senior curator of bird eggs and nests, and his colleague, Arianna Bernucci.

The two men were “very excited to see the egg, having never seen anything like it before,” Biddulph said.

“We were all astonished to learn that the egg is even rarer than we thought and that with its liquid center intact, it is the only known example of its type in the world,” it reads. on the Buckinghamshire Council Heritage and Archeology Team blog.

Eggs from the Roman period are known in Britain, but only survive as shell fragments, making the Berryfields egg a “very rare” find, according to Biddulph.

“In other parts of the Roman world, such as Italy, eggs from the Roman period have sometimes been found intact, but very little research has been done into their contents, if any,” he said . “Douglas of the NHM considered it the oldest unintentionally preserved bird egg in the world. There are mummified eggs that are older, but the Berryfields egg is particularly special, as we wouldn’t normally expect it to be such an old object survives intact.”

The age of the pit in which the egg was found suggests it is at least 1,700 years old, according to Biddulph.

“The pit was originally used to extract water for malting and brewing. The eggs survived because they had been buried in a layer of soft, damp silt or mud, which had not only prevented eggs from being crushed into the soil, but also created anaerobic conditions, thereby inhibiting the action of bacteria that could have caused the egg contents to decompose,” he said. “Other organic objects, which would normally have rotted, were found with the eggs, including (the) basket.

“After the people of the Roman settlement of Berryfields stopped using the pit to extract water for malting and brewing, they used the pit for ritual purposes, placing coins, ceramic pots and of course eggs into the pit as food and other offerings to the gods or for luck – just as coins are still thrown into fountains. The basket, which probably contained bread, was also placed in the pit this effect.

It is possible that the eggs and bread were placed as part of a funeral ceremony for example, according to Biddulph.

Given the uniqueness of the discovery, the egg has “tremendous” research potential, Biddulph added.

“Usually, zooarchaeologists and other archaeologists who study ancient birds only have bird bones and, much less often, eggshell fragments to use for analysis. Having the egg contents available for analysis research will open up a much wider range of research opportunities,” he said. .

One of the problems the researchers hope to solve is confirming which species laid the egg. This could help reveal information about the bird and the environment in which it lived. But from an archaeological point of view, the egg is important because it could provide data on the use of birds and chickens (if confirmed) in the Roman world.

“Currently we know relatively little,” Biddulph said.

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