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‘Worth Their Weight in Gold’: 4,000-Year-Old Ostrich Eggs Found in Israel’s Negev Desert

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Ancient ostrich eggs found near a fire pit in Israel’s Negev Desert. Photo: Emil Aladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority

Ostrich eggs dating back at least 4,000 years were found near an ancient fire pit in Israel’s southern Negev Desert, offering a rare look into the lives of ancient nomads who roamed among its dunes in prehistoric times.

Ostriches are nomadic animals and could be found in the Levant and greater Middle East in ancient times, until becoming extinct during the 19th century. Ancient ostrich eggs and their fragments have been found elsewhere in Israel, including near Kibbutz Yakum and Herzliya.

The eight eggs that were uncovered most recently were found in the Nitzana sand dunes, and were preliminarily dated as between 4,000 and 7,500 years old. Their excavation, announced on Thursday by the Israel Antiquities Authority, was initiated ahead of the area’s development as an agricultural field for the Moshav Be’er Milka, a remote community located near the Egyptian border, southwest of Beersheba.

Eli Escuzido, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, called the find “rare and fascinating,” saying the eggs were likely able to survive so long due to the local dry climate and due to being covered by sand dunes.

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Lauren Davis, IAA’s excavation director, said the prehistoric camp site in which the eggs were found extends about 200 sq. m. (some 240 sq. yd.). “At the site we found burnt stones, flint and stone tools as well as pottery sherds, but the truly special find is this collection of ostrich eggs,” said Davis. “Although the nomads did not build permanent structures at this site, the finds allow us to feel their presence in the desert.”

The find, she added, allows “us a glimpse into the lives of the nomads who roamed the desert in ancient times.”

Amir Gorzalczany, a research archaeologist with the IAA, pointed out that ostrich eggs had multiple applications, having been found “in funerary contexts, and as luxury items and water-canteens.” They were also used as a food source, with one egg boasting “the nutritional value of about 25 normal chicken eggs!” said Gorzalczany.

“There is sometimes even evidence of decorating and incising on ostrich eggs, showing their use as decorative items,” he continued. “It is interesting, that whilst ostrich eggs are not uncommon in excavations, the bones of the large bird are not found. This may indicate that in the ancient world, people avoided tackling the ostrich and were content with collecting their eggs.”

The eggs’ proximity to the fire pit, including the placement of one egg in the pit itself, strengthens the idea that they were used as a food source, explained Davis.

The eggs will undergo further examination in an effort to refine dating and learn the species of the ostrich, as well as the use of the eggs, she added. “As far as I’m concerned, every eggshell is worth its weight in gold!”

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