Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Alla Nagorsky with the egg. (Israel Antiquities Authority/Assaf Peretz) (Israel Antiquities Authority/Assaf Peretz)
Ancient egg

Archaeologists uncovered the intact egg in an ancient cesspit dating from the Byzantine era, but it cracked while being examined

By Yakir Benzion, United With Israel

Did people living in Israel eat eggs for breakfast a thousand years ago?

The answer appears to be yes.

Archaeologists discovered a very rare entirely intact chicken that was preserved in an ancient cesspit being excavated in the city of Yavne.

Experts with the Israel Antiquities Authority say the chicken egg dates from the Byzantine era roughly 1,000 years ago and because so few few ancient chicken eggs have ever been found intact, it was a very rare find.

As the city of Yavne expands and new neighborhoods are built, teams of archaeologists go in first to see what ancient artifacts are hidden beneath soil before houses and apartment buildings go up. This time the dig unearthed an extensive and diverse industrial area, including a cesspit where somebody had thrown out a whole egg that had been preserved in the, well, let’s just call it soft organic material that apparently cushioned the egg over the centuries.

“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,” said archeologist Dr. Lee Perry Gal, who is also a leading expert on poultry in the ancient world. “Even at the global level, this is an extremely rare find.”

“In archaeological digs, we occasionally find ancient ostrich eggs, whose thicker shells preserve them intact,” Dr. Lee noted.

Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Alla Nagorsky, who directs the excavation site where the egg was found, said that even today eggs rarely survive for long in supermarket cartons.

“It’s amazing to think this is a 1,000-year-old find” Nagorsky said. “The egg’s unique preservation is evidently due to the conditions in which it lay for centuries, nestled in a cesspit containing soft human waste that preserved it.”

Poultry farming was introduced into Israel 2,300 years ago, during the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods. In the Islamic period, from the seventh century CE onward, there is a marked decrease in the percentage of pig bones at sites in the region, reflecting the prohibition on eating pork.

“Families needed a ready protein substitute that does not require cooling and preservation, and they found it in eggs and chicken meat,” explained Dr. Perry Gal. “Unfortunately, the egg had a small crack in the bottom so most of the contents had leaked out of it. Only some of the yolk remained, which was preserved for future DNA analysis.”

Despite the extreme caution with which the egg was removed, under the experienced supervision of a conservationist, the shell of the egg – preserved whole by the unusual environmental conditions – was cracked. In the Israel Antiquities Authority’s organics laboratory, conservationist Ilan Naor restored the egg to the state in which it was found.

How did the egg end up in the cesspit? We will never know. Interestingly, other exciting finds were retrieved from the same pit as the egg, including three bone dolls typical of the period that, which were used as playthings some 1,000 years ago.

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