Photo Credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
Israel Antiquities Authority excavation manager Lauren Davis.

Eight ostrich eggs preliminarily dated between 4,000 and 7,500 years ago, were uncovered near an ancient fire pit in the Nitzana dunes in the Negev.

The eggs were discovered in an Israel Antiquities Authority archaeological excavation in the agricultural fields of Moshav Be’er Milka. The excavation was initiated by the Jewish National Fund and the Ramat Negev Regional Council plans to prepare new agricultural land for the moshav.

The 400-year-old ostrich eggs. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

“We found a campsite, which extends over about 200 square meters (0.02 hectares), that was used by the desert nomads since prehistoric times,” says Lauren Davis, the IAA excavation director. “At the site, we found burnt stones, flint, and stone tools, as well as pottery sherds, but the truly special find is this collection of ostrich eggs.”

“Although the nomads did not build permanent structures at this site, the finds allow us to feel their presence in the desert. These campsites were quickly covered over by the dunes and were re-exposed by the sand movement over thousands of years. This fact explains the exceptional preservation of the eggs, allowing us a glimpse into the lives of the nomads who roamed the desert in ancient times,” Davis said.

The excavation in the Nitzana dunes. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

“The proximity of the group of eggs to the fire pit indicates that this is not a chance find that occurred naturally, but an intentional collection of the eggs. One of the eggs was found directly inside the fire pit, which supports the notion that they were used as food. The ostrich eggs were crushed but well-preserved, even though they were uncovered in the surface layer,” says Davis.

Ostriches were common in the area––near today’s Egyptian border in the western Negev––from the early prehistoric periods until they became extinct in the wild in the 19th century. Their eggs have been found in archaeological sites that date from several periods, attesting to the importance of ostrich eggs as raw material.

The excavation of the ostrich eggs. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

“We find ostrich eggs in archaeological sites in funerary contexts, and as luxury items and water canteens,” explains the IAA’s Dr. Amir Gorzalczany who has researched the subject. “Naturally, they were used as a source of food: one ostrich egg has the nutritional value of about 25 normal chicken eggs. There is evidence of the use of notched ostrich eggs as decorative items.”

“It’s interesting that while ostrich eggs are not uncommon in excavations, the bones of the large bird are not found. This may indicate that in the ancient world, people avoided tackling the ostrich and were content with collecting their eggs,” Dr. Gorzalczany suggests.

In the right tray – the flint finds uncovered during the excavation; in the left – ostrich egg shell fragments. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

According to IAA Director Eli Escuzido, the eggs will go to the new analytical laboratory in the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel, where they will undergo further observation and research.

Davis notes that the scientific examination will add information regarding the exact age of the site. “After the excavation, we will reconstruct the eggs, just like a puzzle,” she explains. “The whole egg may tell us its species, and exactly what it was used for. As far as I’m concerned, every eggshell is worth its weight in gold. I am looking forward to the lab results. The best is yet to come.”

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