When Archaeologists Cracked Open Ancient Roman Eggs, Their Stomachs Churned At What Was Inside

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What archaeologists have found in an England-based ancient settlement called Berryfields is almost impossible to comprehend: they’ve dug up four 1,700-year-old chicken eggs. They try to carefully extract each one from the soil, but the fragile ovals can’t handle the pressure. As the age-old shells crack open, the excavation team gets yet another shock.
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In almost any other situation, discarded chicken eggs wouldn’t have lasted anywhere close to 1,700 years. But the Berryfields settlement had a unique feature that allowed for the organic eats to remain preserved for nearly two millennia. Former residents had chucked the eggs into a pit that filled with water and preserved them for years and years.
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Archaeologists theorized that the pit once served as a village resource, perhaps as a place where they malted grain before brewing it into beer. Then the pit’s purpose evolved – at the end of the third century, people began to use it as a wishing well. They tossed in offerings to the gods, including the four eggs that archaeologists cracked open in the present day.
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In the present day, many know Berryfields in Aylesbury, England, as a massive future home site. Indeed, the area – situated in the southeast of the country – has been pinpointed as a development zone for 5,000 new homes. All of the properties should be available for move-in by 2021.
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Ahead of that massive project, though, the Oxford Archaeology team wanted to dig there first. That’s because Berryfields once sat along an ancient Roman Road, which connected the town of Cirencester to London. The archeologists hoped to uncover remnants from an age-old civilization who lived about a half-mile from the pathway in a town called Fleet Marston.
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The Romans long had their eye on Great Britain as a potential addition to their ever-expanding territory. Under the leadership of Julius Caesar, 10,000 Romans crossed the English Channel in 55 B.C. to make their bid for the island. However, British forces pushed the imperial regime back – at least, for a short time.
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The next year, Caesar returned with nearly three times as many troops with him. His second attempt proved successful – high-ranking Briton tribe members surrendered to the Roman leader. However, Caesar had an unexpected call back to mainland Europe, and he took his soldiers with him. Thus their hard-fought occupation ended.
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For the next several years, Romans remained outside of Britain, but the two territories increased their trading with one another. As such, the empire’s influence slowly spread through the British Isles. Eventually, Romans would return to the territory with a more physical presence – in the form of 40,000 soldiers this time around.
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The Romans handily took Great Britain’s southeast corner and, within four years, they founded an imperial city in the heart of their new territory. They called the place Londinium or, as it’s known today, London. The Romans then got to work constructing a large network of roads that funneled people into their new city.
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It would be more than 300 years before the Romans left their British posts, but they had greatly shaped the territory they had left behind. For instance, they had built that aforementioned network of roads. One of their pathways took travelers from Cirencester through to London, passing through what’s today known as Berryfields.
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With so much history in the area, it makes sense why the Oxford Archaeology team wanted to explore the ancient roadway before Berryfields construction began. The Buckinghamshire County Council’s website published a statement from the Berryfields Major Development Area, which detailed the excavation team’s findings within the future neighborhood.
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The Oxford Archaeology team’s dig lasted from 2007 until 2016, and their years-long efforts proved extremely fruitful. For starters, they found a “Roman roadside settlement,” as well as “extensive earthworks of a deserted medieval settlement and Tudor gardens.” The Berryfields MDA said both would “be preserved for future public enjoyment.”
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As more space opened for excavation between 2007 and 2008, the team found even more remarkable remnants of the ancient society that once lived in Berryfields. In fact, some of the team’s findings even predated the Roman era of UK history. Evidence of a prehistoric society living on the Berryfields site included artefacts from both the Iron and Bronze ages, the latter of which extended from 2400 to 700 B.C.
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What surprised excavators was the fact that these ancient people had lived in roundhouses – the Oxford Archaeology team found at least three of these. Not only that, but they discovered that newer roundhouse structures were constructed atop older, abandoned abodes. The Berryfields MDA statement explains that such a setup “suggest[s] that the roundhouses were built at different periods and represent a prolonged period of prehistoric settlement at the site.”
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For such simple structures, the roundhouses showed a bit of Bronze Age ingenuity, too. The ancient Berryfields population built their homes with the entryways facing east. That way, sunlight could pour in and provide both natural illumination and heat. With that find, the Oxford Archaeology team moved onto a new area for excavation – before a railway station and road could be put in, they investigated that area too.
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This excavation area had a slew of ditches etched into the ground, which the Oxford team could date to the Roman period, AD 43-100. Within at least one of the ditches, the Oxford team excavated a trio of human burials – two graves and one cremation site. In the third or fourth century, two women were buried parallel to the Roman road.
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According to the Berryfields MDA statement, bodies by the road meant a lot to the Roman people who lived here. They explained, “Roman burial custom, particularly within Roman towns, typically placed burials prominently along roads, allowing travelers to contemplate the dead as they approached or left the settlement. “
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Meanwhile, the cremation site yielded a ceramic urn, which still contained a man’s charred bone. Experts then used radiocarbon dating to see how old the bone was. Their tests revealed that the man had lived between the early-100s and the mid-200s. Indeed, this made his cremated remains even older than the pair of buried females.
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After that, archaeologists extended their search to the southeast while remaining along what seemed to be the road’s one-time trajectory. Along the banks of the River Thames, they found sizeable timber piles. The experts theorized that the logs had once served as a bridge that crossed the river to continue the Roman road.
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Also beyond the main road, excavators found signs that the Romans had organized the land well for their agricultural pursuits. They had fields and livestock enclosures, which Roman roadway travelers would have been able to take in as they walked by. Animal bones buried underground reveal that the Berryfields locals kept cattle and sheep.
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Yet experts had still to uncover what they considered to be “the most spectacular finds.” In 2011 they set to work in excavating a pit located just off the Roman road. At one time, the statement read, “The pit appears to have functioned as a sump or tank, possibly associated with crop processing or some other agricultural or craft-industrial process.”
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Indeed, the pit sat in a depression, which allowed its lowest depths to fill with water. This worked well for the Roman farmers who seemed to have relied on it for the crop-processing or food production. But the waterlogged environment created the perfect preservative conditions for organic materials that had ended up at the bottom of the pit.
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Normally, organic materials wouldn’t survive thousands of years, but this unique, moisture-laden pit had kept a slew of ancient objects intact. The archaeologists found shreds of leather from shoes, timber, pottery, a pair of animal skeletons and more than 40 coins. They even uncovered a tray or basket woven together with strands of willow and birch.
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In a November 2019 press release of its own, Oxford Archaeology revealed that the amount of items they found around the road – and in the pit – showed that the area was likely a well-traveled one. It was “at the intersection of several routeways that took travelers into the countryside and onto major towns,” their statement explained.
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Oxford Archaeology’s statement further explained that the Roman town’s prime location “potentially identifies the settlement as a marketplace or administrative center with extensive trade connections.” Such a situation would make sense of all of the coins too. If there had been lots of commerce in the area, then money would be floating around as well.
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But some of the items had even more significance and importance than the coins. For one thing, the basket remained in one piece after hundreds of years underground and in water. The Berryfields MDA statement further explained its rarity, saying, “Most Roman baskets that have been found on archaeological sites have been preserved in the dry conditions of North Africa.”
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Then, of course, there were the eggs. Archaeologists found four chicken eggs within the waterlogged pit, and three of them remained entirely intact. One measured in at just over four centimeters, or approximately 1.5 inches. And all four of them had sat underground for approximately 1,700 years.
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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the eggs were the first-ever complete Roman eggs found in Great Britain. Project manager Stuart Foreman told U.K. news website Independent in December 2019 that there was “a very good reason” for this distinction. He explained, “In a pit that has been waterlogged for thousands of years you get things that would never survive in a dry environment.”
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Indeed, only one other intact Roman era egg had ever been discovered before the England-based four. In 2010, experts reported that they had uncovered the body of a child in the Italian capital. Within the buried child’s hand was a chicken egg from the same time period as those discovered within the pit.
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Of course, the discovery of the Berryfields chicken eggs – as well as the rest of the remnants in the pit – led some to wonder why they had ended up there. Indeed, it seemed that the hole had served an agricultural purpose or it had aided in crafting an ancient product. For instance, villagers may have malted grain in the pit, which they would then use to brew beer.
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But the Oxford team theorized that its craft-centric past was only part of the pit’s history. As the third century came to a close, experts believe, the Berryfields population gave the spot a new function – they made it into a wishing well. It makes sense, considering the archaeologists excavated more than 40 coins from the hole.
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Coins are one thing, though – the rest of the items in the pit make less sense for a wishing well. Archaeologist Edward Biddulph explained to U.K. newspaper The Times in 2019 that each item tossed into the pit was likely a sacrifice to the Roman gods. He said, “Passers-by would have perhaps stopped to throw in offerings to make a wish for the gods of the underworld to fulfill.”
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Such a theory makes sense of the eggs’ presence within the pit too. Biddulph said, “The Romans associated eggs with rebirth and fertility, for obvious reasons.” As such, he went on, other excavations have uncovered eggshells and chicken bones within Roman burial sites. Of course, this was the first time that an English dig had yielded a fully intact egg, let alone four of them.
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Biddulph described how the Roman people might’ve used the eggs as part of a funerary procession. He said, “The procession stopped at the pit, where a religious ceremony took place and the food offerings were cast into the pit for the spirits of the underworld or in the hope of rebirth.” Such a theory makes sense of the bread basket’s presence within the pit too.
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Explaining the bread basket and the eggs’ spot in the pit was only part of the puzzle, though. The Oxford Academy team also had to figure out how to excavate such delicate items – the eggs especially. Remember, they were lucky enough to have found three out of four of the ancient eggs staying unbroken in the pit.
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The Berryfields MDA statement reiterated the fact that the remaining eggs “were in an incredibly fragile condition” before excavation. As a consequence, even the expert Oxford team could not remove all of the eggs from the earth damage-free. Their presumably careful dig still left them with two of their three eggs cracked open.
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And each time one of the eggs cracked, Biddulph said that they had a rather unpleasant quality to share with the excavation team. He told the BBC that they released a “potent stench of rotten egg” when cracked open. Fortunately, though, one of the eggs remained in one piece, keeping its scent to itself.
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More importantly, though, the egg survived the excavation, which meant it stood as the only Roman egg to be found fully preserved in the UK. The Oxford Archaeology team took great care to preserve the uncracked egg, too. They took it to their headquarters, where they stored it in a box lined with acid-free tissue paper.
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Of course, the egg won’t remain in its little box for long. Eventually, it will go on display at the Buckinghamshire County Museum, an extraordinary feat that was not lost on project manager Foreman. He told Independent, “It’s incredible we even got one out. They were so fragile.”
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Further excavations of the site proved less fruitful for the Oxford Archaeology team. According to the Berryfields MDA’s statement, the excavators found “no evidence of post-Roman settlement” in the area. They explain all of their findings in a 2019 book, which covers everything from the Roman-era economy to beer brewing to farming. Needless to say, the pristinely preserved eggs will probably get a mention in there too.

2 comments:

  1. I hate it when they get off track and repeat the same thing in different contexts.

    ReplyDelete

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