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

What archaeologists have found in this part of England is almost impossible to comprehend. Astonishingly, they’ve somehow managed to unearth four 1,700-year-old chicken eggs. But as the group try to carefully extract each egg from the soil, the fragile finds can’t handle the pressure. And as the shells crack open, the excavation team get yet another shock that may well have made their stomachs turn.

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 them to remain preserved for nearly two millennia. Former residents had thrown the eggs into a pit, you see, and as this hole had filled with water, it had neatly kept the items intact as the decades passed.

Archaeologists have theorized that the pit once served as a village resource – perhaps as a place where grain was malted before it was brewed into beer. Ultimately, though, the hole’s purpose evolved, as at the end of the third century, people apparently began to use it as a wishing well. The locals may have tossed in offerings to the gods, in fact, and that seems to include the four eggs that were cracked open in the present day.

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In the present day, though, many know Berryfields in Aylesbury, England, as a massive building site. That’s because the area – which is situated in the southeast of the country – has been pinpointed as a development zone for 5,000 new homes. All of those properties should be available to move into by 2021.

Before work on the new houses began, however, the Oxford Archaeology team wanted to dig in the area. For one, Berryfields sat on what had once been an ancient Roman road that had connected the town of Cirencester to London. And consequently, the archeologists hoped to uncover remnants from an age-old civilization that had lived about a half-mile from the pathway in a town called Fleet Marston.

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Indeed, the Romans had long had their eyes on Great Britain as a potential addition to their ever-expanding territory. Under the leadership of Julius Caesar, in 55 B.C. 10,000 men crossed the English Channel to make their bid for the island. Ultimately, though, British forces pushed the imperial regime back – at least for a short time.

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Then, the following year, Caesar returned with nearly three times as many troops with him. And his second attempt at taking over the country proved successful, as high-ranking Briton tribe members eventually surrendered to the Roman leader. Yet Caesar also had an unexpected call back to mainland Europe, and he took his soldiers with him – marking the end of their hard-fought occupation.

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For the next several years, Rome remained outside of Britain, although the two territories did increase their trading with each other. As such, the empire’s influence slowly spread through the British Isles. And, in time, Romans would return to the territory with a more physical presence – in the form of 40,000 soldiers.

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So, the Romans handily took Great Britain’s southeast corner, and, within four years, founded an imperial city in the heart of their new territory. They called the place Londinium – or London, as it’s known today. Then, after that, the Europeans got to work constructing a large network of roads that funneled people into their new city.

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And although the Romans would ultimately leave their British posts, they had greatly shaped the territory that they left behind. They had built that aforementioned network of roads, for instance. One of these pathways took travelers from Cirencester through to London, passing through what’s known today as Berryfields.

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With so much history to the area, then, the Oxford Archaeology team naturally wanted to explore the ancient roadway before construction at Berryfields began. And, in time, the Buckinghamshire County Council’s website published a statement from the Berryfields Major Development Area (MDA), with this message detailing the excavation team’s findings within the future neighborhood.

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The Oxford Archaeology team’s dig lasted from 2007 until 2016, in fact, and their nearly decade-long effort proved extremely fruitful. For starters, they unearthed a “Roman roadside settlement” as well as “extensive earthworks of a deserted medieval settlement and Tudor gardens.” The Berryfields MDA said that both sets of relics would “be preserved for future public enjoyment.”

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However, as more space opened for excavation between 2007 and 2008, the team found even more remarkable remnants at the Berryfields site. In fact, some of the team’s findings even predated the Roman era of British history. There was evidence that a prehistoric society had once lived there, for instance, as artifacts were uncovered from both the Iron and Bronze Ages.

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What surprised excavators, however, was the fact that these ancient people had lived in roundhouses, with the Oxford Archaeology team finding at least three of these dwellings. Not only that, but the researchers discovered that newer roundhouse structures had been constructed atop older, abandoned abodes. And 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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The roundhouses showed a bit of Bronze Age ingenuity, too. You see, 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. Ultimately, however, the Oxford Archaeology team moved onto another site before an envisioned new railway station and road were constructed.

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This excavation area had a slew of ditches etched into the ground that the Oxford team could date to the period of Roman occupation in Britain. And within at least one of these channels, a pair of graves and a cremation site were uncovered. In the third or fourth century, it seems that two women had been buried parallel to the Roman road.

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Furthermore, the Berryfields MDA statement suggested that this macabre positioning was of some significance to the Romans. It 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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The cremation site also yielded a ceramic urn that still contained a man’s charred bone. And after radiocarbon dating was carried out upon the item, it ultimately revealed that the individual to whom the bone had once belonged had lived between the 2nd and 3rd century A.D. This made his cremated remains even older than those belonging to the pair of buried females.

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After that, archaeologists extended their search to the southeast while remaining along what seemed to have been the road’s trajectory. And along the banks of the River Thames, they eventually unearthed sizeable timber piles. The experts theorized that the logs had once served as a bridge that crossed the river.

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Also beyond the main road, excavators found signs that the Romans had organized the land for agricultural pursuits. It seemed, for example, that the ancient people had fields and livestock enclosures – ones that Roman roadway travelers would have been able to take in as they walked by. Animal bones buried underground reveal that the Berryfields locals also kept cattle and sheep.

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Yet the archaeologists had still to uncover what were later deemed “the most spectacular finds.” In 2011, however, they set to work in excavating a pit located just off the Roman road. The Berryfields MDA statement explained this location further, saying, “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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It seemed, too, that the cavity sat in a depression that allowed its lowest depths to fill with water. This worked well for the Roman farmers, who seemed to have relied on the hole for crop-processing or food production. And the waterlogged environment created the perfect preservative conditions for the items 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. Ultimately, then, archaeologists found shreds of leather from shoes as well as timber, pottery, a pair of animal skeletons and more than 40 coins. They even uncovered a tray or basket that had been woven together with strands of willow and birch.

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And in a November 2019 press release of its own, Oxford Archaeology revealed that the number of items the team had found around the road – and in the pit – suggested the area was a well-traveled one. The site was apparently “at the intersection of several routeways that took travelers into the countryside and onto major towns.”

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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 explain the coins; if there had been lots of commerce in the area, then money would have been floating around as well.

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But some of the items had even more significance and importance than the coins. The basket, for one, had remained intact – despite having spent years underground and in water. And the Berryfields MDA statement further explained the container’s 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, with three of these remaining entirely undamaged. One example was measured, too, as being just over 1.5 inches. And all of the eggs had sat underground for approximately 1,700 years.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the eggs were the first of their kind to be found in Great Britain. And in December 2019 project manager Stuart Foreman told The Independent 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. And within the buried youngster’s hand, there was a chicken egg from the same time period as those discovered within the pit.

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Of course, the uncovering 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. It seemed, though, that the hole had either served an agricultural purpose or had aided in crafting an ancient product. For instance, villagers may have put malted grain in the space that they would then use to brew beer.

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But the Oxford team have theorized that the pit’s craft-centric past was only part of its 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. And considering the archaeologists excavated more than 40 coins from the hole, this suggestion makes some sense.

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Yet the rest of the items in the pit make less sense if it had once been a wishing well. In 2019, then, archaeologist Edward Biddulph explained to The Times that anything tossed into the hole was likely a sacrifice to Roman deities. 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 added, “The Romans associated eggs with rebirth and fertility, for obvious reasons.” And as it happens, other excavations have uncovered eggshells and chicken bones within Roman burial sites. But, 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 also suggested that the Roman people may have 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.” This also goes some way to explaining the bread basket’s presence within the pit.

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Explaining the basket and the eggs was only part of the puzzle, though, as the Oxford Archaeology team also had to figure out how to excavate such delicate items. As previously mentioned, three out of four of the ancient eggs were unbroken in the pit – and naturally the group wanted to keep them that way.

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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 items from the earth damage-free, as their presumably careful dig still managed to break two sets of shells.

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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, you see, that they released a “potent stench” when fractured. 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-era example of its kind to be found fully preserved in the U.K. And the Oxford Archaeology team naturally took great care to preserve the item, storing it in a box lined with acid-free tissue paper.

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Yet the egg won’t remain in its little container for long; eventually, it will go on display at the Buckinghamshire County Museum. And this extraordinary feat was not lost on project manager Foreman. He told The Independent, “It’s incredible we even got one [egg] out. They were so fragile.”

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Unfortunately, though, further excavations of the site proved less fruitful for the Oxford Archaeology team. According to the Berryfields MDA’s statement, the excavators uncovered “no evidence of post-Roman settlement” in the area. And the archaeologists 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 probably get a mention in there, too.

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