Are eggs good for you, or are they not good for you? That depends on your medical history and your god, but the fact is – from soft-boiled to shirred, eggs are a fairly new addition to the regular human diet. Chickens in ancient times seem to have been cultivated mainly for entertainment, not consumption. Now archaeologists analyzing garbage in Jerusalem from the late First Temple period have concluded that among other animal-based proteins, the ancient Jerusalemites ate eggs.
The time was one of rule by the Babylonians, who under the notorious King Nebuchadnezzar, had conquered the kingdom of Judah and neighboring lands. They rolled into Jerusalem itself in 597 B.C.E. and controlled it through the vassal King Zedekiah of Judah (reportedly a member of the Davidic line and son of King Josiah).
Zedekiah seems to have been a callow youth whose reign would be all too brief, nine or ten years, which culminated in an ill-advised rebellion. The irritated Babylonians leveled Jerusalem archaeologists have even identified destruction layers dating to that time. It bears adding that while history tells that the surviving Jews were banished to Babylon, it seems that at least some remained.
And whoever was living in Babylonian Jerusalem, Judahites or others, was eating chicken eggs, say archaeologists.
Why would consuming eggs be a surprise? Because, Prof. Amar tells Haaretz, over the ages, the species were thought to be kept mainly as pets and for entertainment, specifically in fighting.
Supporting that supposition, among the scanty findings from the First Temple era in Jerusalem are seals dated to the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E., evidently from the royal house of the time, with the image of a fighting cock. That attests to a passion for the pastime, the researchers report.
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Cocks are notorious for having foul tempers and certain people have enjoyed watching them maim each other – and other animals, such as tortoises – for 6,000 years, at the least. The pastime was popular from prehistory throughout the Indian subcontinent.
The ancient Greeks also famously delighted in the bloody “sport,” also because they thought it would encourage their lads to be warlike. The somewhat later Romans despised the Greeks for it, but themselves secretly bet on the birds too.
Yes, people would eat chickens too, but this is the first solid evidence that they were eating their eggs, Amar says.
It is remarkable that bits of their delicate shells have been preserved all this time, he adds.
When you find eggs in the garbage
The eggshell fragments dating from 2,600 years ago in Jerusalem had been found by Dr. Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University, excavating in the so-called City of David just under Temple Mount, ten years ago. The new study is based on fresh analysis of the ancient remains by Prof. Zohar Amar of Bar-Ilan University. The fragments were found in the garbage of what had been the city’s government compound during the First Temple period, Amar tells Haaretz.
The sheer fact that the shell bits were found in trash (and the quantity) attests that they were discards from consumption, Amar explains. If people were raising chickens to be decorative, to love, or to kill each other, the eggshells would be in their version of chicken coops, not in the kitchen detritus.
Enough large fragments were found among the hundreds of shell bits to reconstruct the ancient eggs using an algorithm developed by Dr. Avshalom Karasik of the Israel Antiquities Authority to reconstruct pottery.
So: the ancient chicken egg in Jerusalem averaged about 50 millimeters high, its maximum diameter was 40mm, and the total volume with the shell was 61 cubic centimeters, Amar reports. That is the same as medium to large sized Israeli eggs, for what that’s worth. Egg size can vary enormously depending on the chicken type, diet and nutrition. A puny, aged and malnourished bird will likely lay smaller eggs than beefy young birds that are adequately fed, Amar points out.
Early exports from China
The domestication of various animals began even before the advent of agriculture, meaning subsistence farming, as opposed to opportunistic harvesting or gleaning. The adoption of the dog clearly goes back at least 15,000 years and probably more, to a time when agriculture may have been forming, but was far from being the main source of nutrition. Goats became part of the pastoral landscape over 11,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, to be followed by sheep shortly afterward.
The domestication of the chicken seems to have happened elsewhere. Genetic evidence indicates that chicken cultivation began in southern Asia and China during the early Holocene period, over 10,000 years ago. Some suspect the chicken originated in the Indus Valley but its origin was evidently broader.
Again, as it spread to the Middle East and Levant in the late Bronze Age, the chief goal of its owners seems to have been to pit the males against one another.
Other ancient cultures would connect between the bellicose rooster and male virility and the like, but Jewish halakha found other uses for the species. “The measure known as ka-beytza [like the size of an egg] has halakhic implications in various areas in measurements used by the Torah,” the university explains.
A couple of thousand years later, the rooster would gain special meaning in Christianity too, in the form of the prophecy that the apostle Peter would deny Jesus before the cock crows.
Subsequently, in the 9th century, as the Smithsonian reminds us, Pope Nicholas I ruled that every church should be adorned with the image of a rooster. That practice has continued to this very day, as has the consumption of the egg. Also, during the Passover seder, Jews dip hard-boiled eggs in salt water and eat them – a practice that seems to have begun in medieval Germany. We don’t really know why.