Roman-Age Egg: A Spectacular Preservation

A 1,700-year-old chicken egg found in a waterlogged pit in England has amazed scientists with its intact contents of yolk and egg white. It is believed to be the only one of its kind in the world and offers a rare glimpse into the ancient practices of ritual offerings.

The Roman-Age Egg was one of four discovered in 2010 by Oxford Archaeology during an excavation of a Roman-era site in Aylesbury, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) east of Oxford. The site contained evidence of habitation dating back to the Neolithic period, and the pit dated from the third century A.D., when England was a part of the Roman Empire.

The pit was first used for malting grain and brewing ale, but it was later filled with water and became a place where people could throw in coins and other items as offerings to the gods for good luck. Organic objects usually rot away when exposed to oxygen, but here many were preserved by the waterlogged soil. As well as the eggs, which seem to have been an offering of some sort, the pit contained a wooden basket, leather shoes, and wooden vessels and tools.

Three of the fragile eggs fractured as they were unearthed, releasing a “potent stench”, but the fourth remained intact. Now, the surviving egg has been scanned at the University of Kent with microscopic computed tomography (micro-CT), in which many X-ray scans are compiled digitally to make a virtual 3D model.

What’s Inside the Roman-Age Egg

The scan revealed that the Roman-Age Egg, likely laid by a chicken, still contained liquid and an air bubble, presumably deriving from the yolk, albumen and other components. It also showed that the shell had been slightly crushed at some point, possibly by the weight of the soil or by human handling.

“It produced an amazing image that indicated that the egg, apart from being intact — which is incredible enough — also retained its liquid inside,” Edward Biddulph, a senior project manager at Oxford Archaeology, told BBC News.

The Roman-Age Egg was then taken to the National History Museum in London, where curators Douglas Russell and Arianna Bernucci expressed their excitement. While intact Roman-period eggs have been found before — often in graves, where eggs were thought to be suitable offerings — this seems to be the first time a complete Roman-era egg has been found in Britain. The only other Roman-era egg to survive intact was found in the hand of a dead infant buried near the Vatican.

Why the Egg Matters

The egg is considered to be the oldest unintentionally preserved bird’s egg ever found, and it offers an extraordinary opportunity for in-depth research on ancient birds and chickens. It could shed light on the domestication, diet, health and genetics of chickens in Roman Britain, as well as their cultural and religious significance.

The egg also provides a rare insight into the ancient practices of ritual offerings, which were common in areas of the Roman world associated with water sources. Eggs were symbols of fertility, life and rebirth, and they may have been used to invoke divine favor or protection.

The egg is currently being conserved at Oxford Archaeology’s laboratory, where it will be stabilized and protected from further damage. It is hoped that it will eventually go on public display at a local museum.

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