Did Ancient Peoples Bless Their Houses With Eggs?

Sardis, an ancient city in modern-day Turkey, has been the site of archeological expeditions since 1910 and is still churning out new finds today.

But this past July archaeologists working at the site found something particularly unusual: 2,000-year-old eggs, likely meant to bless the house as part of a purification ritual.

These deposits were buried under an ancient floor in Sardis nearly 2,000 years ago. Archaeologists who found them in 2013 suspect the artifacts may have been part of a ritual to ward off disaster. Photograph Courtesy ©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis / Harvard University
These deposits were buried under an ancient floor in Sardis nearly 2,000 years ago. Photograph courtesy Archaeological Exploration of Sardis / Harvard University

Burying items in homes as a ritual isn’t itself an unusual practice; it’s a common tradition throughout the Mediterranean and Near East, Nick Cahill, director of the Sardis expedition, told National Geographic.

But finding delicate eggs is another story.

The eggs were discovered in two pots, which date to between A.D. 54 and 68 and were found buried in the earthen floor of an early Roman house. (See “Pictures: Ancient Roman Spa City Reburied in Turkey.”)

One egg was smashed, the other whole, and both were filled with dirt. Amazingly, a team of conservators, led by Jennifer Kim, were able to excavate one eggshell intact, except for a small, already-existing hole in the side.

This perforation was likely intentional and perhaps served to empty out the contents of the offering to avoid rot, said William Bruce, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison who found the eggs.

Smoking Gun

Eggs have been found at the site once before, during the first Sardis expedition in 1911, but they were given little attention.

However, archaeologists at the time had described the exact type of small perforation observed in the new findings, which led today’s researchers to conclude that they were on to something.

“[It] was kind of a smoking gun,” said Bruce. Furthermore, the old research described the exact same combination of items found in the pots: coins, implements, and, yes, eggs—suggesting it wasn’t a coincidence.

The burning question, of course, is exactly why eggs were used in this way in Sardis.

Sardis experienced a devastating earthquake around A.D. 17, and one hypothesis is that the eggs could be intended to ward off another such calamity. Yet Bruce thinks the eggs may have been a purification ritual of some kind, a well-known practice in the ancient world. (Also see “Neanderthal Burials Confirmed as Ancient Ritual.”)

“Often when structures were rebuilt, they would put a ritual deposit into the wall or floor,” said Bruce. Their research was detailed recently in a presentation by Bruce’s colleague Elizabeth DeRidder Raubolt at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in New Orleans.

“In Greece you find a lot of these type of deposits, where they put something in the walls as a dedication along the lines of ‘bless this house.’” This was likely to ensure purity, fertility, and abundance, says Bruce.

It’s like our ritual of cracking a bottle of champagne against the side of a ship—except in this case it’s poking an egg.

The Eggs of Sardis

Some further detective work revealed that several contemporary Roman thinkers, including Ovid, wrote of the purifying properties of eggs, and that the satirist Juvenal even mentioned egg rituals in connection with the revered goddess Cybele.

This is a potentially significant clue because a coin that depicts a lion, the symbol of Cybele, was also found in the pots along with the eggs and implements. (See “Oldest Globe of New World Carved on Ostrich Eggs?“)

“These deposits could have been rituals to purify the house in part of a reconstruction with the blessing of one of Sardis’s most ancient deities,” said Bruce.

The graffiti lion incised on this coin is likely a symbol of the goddess Cybele, often associated with mountains. Photograph Courtesy ©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis / Harvard University
The graffiti lion incised on this coin is likely a symbol of the goddess Cybele, often associated with mountains. Photograph courtesy Archaeological Exploration of Sardis / Harvard University

Interestingly, Bruce said he knows of no other site where such purification rituals involved the use of eggs, meaning it could be a practice unique to Sardis.

But the necessary research is still in its infancy, and he warned that nothing is certain at this point. Archaeological finds take time to generate hypotheses and those ideas longer still to ferment into solid theories.

Now it’s just a matter of seeing what other bounty Sardis offers up with its side of eggs.

Follow Stefan Sirucek on Twitter.

Stefan Sirucek is a writer and journalist who reports from both sides of the Atlantic. He's written for the Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter at @sirstefan.
  • LeafyJune

    Anyone checking (if it’s possible) to see if the empty eggshell is one from a hatchling? You know ~ as in the idea of a Phoenix rising from the ashes of its own destruction??

  • vinay

    may be it is incubation technique..!!

  • Stefan Sirucek

    Interesting idea Leafy but the scientists were pretty sure the hole was man-made!

  • Lasal Paul

    These type of ritualistic activities are even performed nowadays in India. The spiritual man in Hinduism buries some valuables in the corner of the house to purify it.

  • Aydan Alaya

    Apparently, it’s not only in the Mediterranean & Near East that people believe in the purifying power of the egg – a friend of mine told me about a cleansing ritual with an egg that was performed on her by an old shaman woman in Costa Rica. Similar rituals are known also in rural Russia – it’s called “rolling an egg”(kataniye yaitsom). It’d be interesting to find out more about it. May be NatGeo can make a piece on this subject? Just a suggestion 😉

  • Stefan Sirucek

    Aha very interesting Aydan thanks for the information! You as well Lasal. It seems this practice may be more widespread than expected.

  • steve

    It’s a witches bottle.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media