23 Mar 2011

Minoan ostrich eggs from Africa

A great testimony to how extensive and elaborate trading networks were in the ancient world is the presence of wildly foreign objects like elephant tusks and ostrich eggs in ancient Crete. This might seem astonishing on the surface but it gives us a clue that the Minoans had an appetite for these items to the far south and the Egyptians were in a position to take advantage of this commerce.

The use of the ostrich egg as a drinking cup or rhyton is an interesting subject elaborated on in The Fashioning of Ostrich-Egg Rhyta in the Creto-Mycenaean Aegean at the Thera Foundation website. It provides many details about their adornment and repurposing into vessels. It can be easily concluded that the prized eggs must have ultimately come from Sudan since the geographic distribution of ostriches are limited. Obtaining them through Egyptian trade seems like the most efficient path of acquisition.

One thing that I notice the article doesn't go into is the significance of the eggs to the Minoan. We must ask why they needed such eggs in the first place since they could surely fashion vessels in many other more efficient ways not involving long-distance trade. The egg however is a symbol of the cosmos and creation, present even later in Greek symbolism, and stemming from Egyptian beliefs. The 'adorning' of the egg is interesting because in Greek, at least, κόσμος 'natural order, cosmos' also meant more fundamentally 'adornment'. The adorning of the egg is as if the artist is adorning the cosmos. It's the imitation of the godly act, it seems to me.

The picture above, by the way, is from Stelios now has a blog... where the author shares his criticisms of some Greek museums and the way they showcase their material to the general public, with little to no helpful explanations. I have to agree that more passion is needed. History's awesome, people! :o)


  1. Why do we need to appeal to the cosmic significance of eggs to explain this? Surely fashion, luxury, conspicuous consumption, and the fact that eggs are quite beautiful objects is enough.

    We don't need to appeal to the cosmic significance of crystal to explain why fancy westerners like to drink out of them when there are much cheaper and less breakable plastic mugs available.

    (I'm enjoying your blog by the way - found it while looking for stuff on the old japanese numerals)

  2. From Wikipedia "Ostrich": "S. c. syriacus, Arabian Ostrich or Middle Eastern Ostrich, Middle East. Was formerly very common in the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, and Iraq; it became extinct around 1966."
    I'd guess there's some way African and Asian ostrich egg shells could be distinguished, either structurally or by carbon and oxygen isotopes.

  3. Arc, I can't stop anyone from ignoring the connections, but the egg was a very important symbolism in the ancient world. Ignore everything, if you wish, but the connection is there, even the connection specifically with ostrich eggs, and noted by other historians.

    Daniel, this raises a good question and I don't have a clever answer. That being said, it's still a fact that Minoans were trading with the Egyptians and evidently obtaining goods from Africa. As always, there's more information to learn.

  4. Note page 365 of Egypt and Syria in the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk eras IV (2005), edited by Vermeulen & Van Steenbergen: "The ostrich egg, above all other eggs, is the symbol of the resurrected Christ and for the Easter season it was often part of the Coptic Church's celebration of the resurrection." This tradition is naturally built on pre-Christian traditions.

  5. This was very helpful! We also have ostricheggs found in bronzeage burial on Cyprus. Am studying for easter program at Medelhavsmuseet in Stockholm. Wanted a picture of the dolfinegg". Will tell the story of the birth of Helen. Looking forward to reading more in your blog. Linda :-)