Israeli Archaeologists Find Whole 1,000-year-old Egg – and Accidentally Break It

So it goes: The egg, an extraordinary discovery from the Islamic period, had been in a toilet all these years. At least its innards can contribute to a DNA study of ancient chickens

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
The 1,000-year-old egg found in an ancient Yavneh cesspit.
The 1,000-year-old egg found in an ancient Yavneh cesspit.Credit: Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

One day a thousand years ago, a chicken in Yavneh laid an egg. That egg was never to hatch, sadly for that chicken’s posterity. For some reason, it wound up in a cesspit in the ancient city’s industrial zone – and there it sat.

Until archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority came along, conducting a salvage excavation in the ancient industrial zone of the central Israeli city ahead of construction, and found it. Seasoned in the extraction of extremely delicate matter, they managed to remove the egg from the cesspit, still perfect.

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“We were astonished to find it,” IAA archaeologist Alla Nagorsky, head of this part of the salvage dig, told Haaretz. “From time to time we find fragments of eggshells, but a whole egg is extraordinary.”

The egg had apparently been preserved all these years – never mind cracking, it didn’t decay and rot – because it had been dropped or placed in the toilet, and was encased in soft waste, which created anaerobic conditions.

Archaeologist Alla Nagorsky holding the egg found in Yavneh.Credit: Gilad Shtern / Israel Antiquities Authority

And then it broke in the lab; a small crack in the bottom, according to the IAA’s Dr. Lee Perry Gal. We won’t get into it but on the upside, some yolk has remained in the shell and will serve for DNA future analysis, he says. And maybe it would have had to be broken at some stage anyway to study its inside, Nagorsky comforts the world.

The IAA adds that conservationist Ilan Naor has restored the shell of the egg that was laid a thousand years ago in Yavneh.

How do they know the chicken lived during the Islamic period? Because of other finds in said cesspit, which was not huge: 1.20 meters (about 4 feet) by 80 centimeters, and about 1.3 meters in height. The other finds include three dolls made of bone, typical of the whole Abbasid period from the seventh century to the late 11th century, and an oil lamp.

That lamp was of a type only made in the late Abbasid period, Nagorsky explains – about 1,000 years ago. And thusly, they dated the chicken egg to that time.

The IAA excavation site in Yavneh's ancient industrial zone.Credit: Emil Aladjem / Israel Antiquities Authority

The area Nagorsky is responsible for is just part of large-scale salvage digs directed by Dr. Elie Haddad, Liat Nadav-Ziv and Dr. Jon Seligman, which uncovered the ancient industrial zone of Yavneh in the Byzantine period.

“Eggshell fragments are known from earlier periods – for example, in the City of David and at Caesarea and Apollonia. But due to the eggs’ fragile shells, hardly any whole chicken eggs have been preserved. Even at the global level, this is an extremely rare find,” says the IAA’s Gal, a leading expert on poultry in the ancient world.

He added that it is rather less rare for archaeologists to find ostrich eggs, which are thicker.

In fact, there was quite the brisk international trade in decorated ostrich eggs in antiquity. The ancient traders apparently prized “wild” ostrich eggs over the absolutely identical offerings of captive ostriches. Perhaps the reasoning was that wild ostriches are savage and stealing their eggs proved derring-do. In any case, decorating ostrich eggs goes back at least 60,000 years.

Three ancient dolls found at the Yavneh excavation site.Credit: Gilad Shtern / Israel Antiquities Authority

There’s no word on when people started decorating chicken eggs. But it bears adding that in the classic world, chickens were prized mainly for their foul tempers – the ancient Greeks, and later the Romans, were into cockfighting. However, the discovery of chicken eggshell (not a whole egg) from 2,600 years ago in Jerusalem led archaeologists to the conclusion that ancient Jerusalemites at the time ate eggs.

Asked what it’s like to excavate a thousand-year-old toilet, Nagorsky explains that in the interim, the waste became dirt. They’re simply digging in dirt. It’s fine.

The thousand-year-old Yavneh egg.Credit: Dafna Gazit / Israel Antiquities Authority
The thousand-year-old doll wearing a dress.Credit: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

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