‘World first’ intact Roman egg laid 1,700 years ago discovered by archaeologists
It was a wonderful find as it was, a cache of 1,700-year-old speckled chicken eggs discovered in a Roman pit during a dig in Buckinghamshire.
But to the astonishment of archaeologists and naturalists, a scan has revealed that one of the eggs recovered intact still has liquid – thought to be a mix of yolk and albumen – inside it, and may give up secrets about the bird that laid it almost two millennia ago.
The “Aylesbury egg” is one of four that were found alongside a woven basket, pottery vessels, leather shoes, and animal bone in 2010 as a site was being explored ahead of a major development.
Despite the experts extracting them as carefully as possible, three broke, producing an unforgettable sulphurous smell, but one was preserved complete.
Edward Biddulph, the senior project manager at Oxford Archaeology, which oversaw the excavation, said it had been amazing enough to find what is thought to be the only intact egg from the period in Britain. “We do often find pieces of shells but not intact eggs,” he said.
Discussions were being held last year about how to display the egg when Dana Goodburn-Brown, an archaeological conservator and materials scientist, suggested they scan it to help decide how best to preserve it.
Biddulph said: “The egg turned out to be even more amazing. It still contained its liquid, the yolk and the white.” The yolk and albumen appear to have become mixed together.
“We might have expected it to have leached out over the centuries but it is still there. It is absolutely incredible. It may be the oldest egg of its type in the world.”
Biddulph said the egg had been deliberately placed in a pit that had been used as a well for malting and brewing. “This was a wet area next to a Roman road. It may have been the eggs were placed there as a votive offering. The basket we found may have contained bread.”
The egg has been taken to the Natural History Museum in London. Biddulph said it had felt a little daunting riding on the tube and walking around the capital with such an extraordinary and fragile egg in his care.
Douglas Russell, the senior curator of the museum’s birds’ eggs and nests collection, was consulted about how to conserve the egg and remove the contents without breaking it.
There are older eggs with contents, such as mummified ones, but Russell said it was believed to be the oldest unintentionally preserved egg. A tiny hole may be made in the egg to extract the contents and try to find out more about the bird that laid it.
Goodburn-Brown said: “The egg ranks as one of the coolest and most challenging archaeological finds to investigate and conserve. Being the temporary caretaker and investigator of this Roman egg counts as one of the major highlights of my 40-year career.”