While archaeologists were excavating a site called Berryfields in central England, known for its ancient history, they were speechless when they discovered something they never expected to find. Out of all things, the team unearthed four 1,700-year-old chicken eggs. However, as the group tried their best to extract the eggs from the ground carefully, the fragile eggs couldn’t handle the pressure and began to crack. When eggs slowly began to open, the archaeologists were met with a shock that was greater than finding the eggs in the first place.
How The Eggs Survived
In almost any other circumstance, it would have essentially been impossible for discarded chicken eggs to survive anywhere close to 1,700 years. However, the Berryfields site in central England had a unique feature that allowed these fragile eggs to survive for more than two millennia.
It’s assumed that the ancient residents that discarded these eggs threw them into a pit that slowly had become filled with water. The water then helped keep the eggs intact for nearly 2,000 years.
A Use For The Pit
However, experts believe that this wasn’t just any ordinary pit that the eggs were thrown into. It’s possible that the pit served as a village resource, potentially a place where grain was malted before it was brewed into beer.
However, the hole’s purpose changed, and by the end of the century, it was used as a type of wishing well. The eggs could have been placed in there as an offering to the gods at the time.
Working In Berryfields
The site that the ancient eggs were discovered is today known as Berryfields in Aylesbury, England. Currently, it’s under major modern construction in order to build new homes.
It was being excavated prior to 5,000 new homes being built in the area. It is assumed that all of the properties will be open for people to move in by 2021. See why the area was being excavated before the houses were built over historical land.
Why The Area Is So Important
Before work on the new development began, the Oxford Archaeology team requested permission to excavate the area. One of the main reasons for this is that what is now Berryfields sits on what was once an ancient Roman road that had connected the town of Cirencestor to London.
Because of this, the archaeologists had hoped to find the ancient remains of a settlement about have a half-mile from the former road in a town called Fleet Marston.
The Connection Between Rome And England
During the period of ancient Rome, the Romans had their eye on Great Britain as a significant addition to their ever-growing empire.
Under the leadership of Julius Caesar, in 55 BC, 10,000 Romans crossed the English Channel in an attempt to take over the island of England. However, impressively, the British forces were able to beat the Romans back, at least for a short period of time.
They Were Back Within A Year
The following year, Caesar returned to England with more than three times as many troops as the last time. His second attempt to take the country proved to be more successful than the first.
After a period of significant violence, the highest-ranking Britain tribe members eventually surrendered to the Roman leader. However, Caesar had unexpected business to take care of back in mainland Europe, taking his troops with him. This marked the end of the Romans’ hardest-fought occupation to date.
Their Interaction Didn’t End There
In the following years, the Romans kept out of Britain. However, their interactions continued in the form of trade between the two territories, in fact, increasing dramatically.
Over time, the Roman Empire’s influence slowly began to spread throughout the British Isles, with many of their ideas and practices becoming established in Britain society. This continued for some time until the Romans would return to Britain with an army of more than 40,000-strong at their back.
Upon returning with their massive army, the Romans made quick work of the Briton’s and took Great Britain’s southeast corner with ease. Then, within four years, the Roman Empire established an imperial city in the heart of the territory they now controlled.
They called this city Londinium, or London as it’s known as today. Then, they got to work building a large network of roads to connect people from all over to their new city.
The Romans Left A Long-Lasting Influence
Although the Romans would eventually leave the new territories that they established in England, their influence remained. Not only did they leave behind much of the culture which was adopted by the people of England, but also physical structures such as the massive network of roads.
One of these roads connected travelers from Cirencester to London through what is now known as Berryfields. This would later become of particular interest to modern-day archaeologists and where the eggs were discovered.
The Land Holds A Great Amount Of History
Considering that there was so much history in the area, the Oxford Archaeologists team figured that it would be a shame not to have a look before houses were built on top of the land. Because the plans for the development were already underway, they knew that they needed to get to work fast.
Eventually, the Buckinghamshire County Council’s website would go on to publish a statement from the Berryfields Major Developmental Area describing the team’s findings on the land.
The Excavation Was Lengthy
The Oxford Archaeology team’s dig was not a short one, lasting from 2007 until 2016. However, their effort was not in vain, and their excavation proved to be a success.
To begin, they discovered the remains of a Roman roadside settlement as well as the “extensive earthworks of a deserted medieval settlement as well as Tudor gardens.” The Berryfields Major Developmental Area went on to add that both of these discoveries would “be preserved for public enjoyment.”
There Were Even More Findings
Between 2007 and 2008, even more incredible things were discovered from the Berryfields site. Amazingly, some of the team’s findings were even greater than they could have hoped for, with some findings even predating the Roman era of British history.
The evidence that they found suggested that a prehistoric society had once called this area home, with artifacts being uncovered that dated back to both the Iron and the Bronze Ages.
Another aspect of the dig that surprised the team was that these ancient people lived in roundhouses, with the Oxford Archaeology team finding three of them in the area. Furthermore, the researchers discovered that newer roundhouses had been constructed on top of the even older living quarters.
The Berryfields MDA statement explained that the findings “suggest that the roundhouses were built at different time periods and represent a prolonged period of prehistoric settlement at the site.”
The Houses Were Advanced
Interestingly, the roundhouses were quite advanced for being built in the Bronze Age. The ancient people that lived in what is now today Berryfields built their homes with the entryways facing east.
This way, in the morning, sunlight could enter the home to provide not only natural light but heat as well. However, after the Oxford Archaeology team moved onto another site, a new railway station and road were built on top of the land where the roundhouses were found.
Evidence Of The Romans
It didn’t take long for the excavation team to find a series of ditches dug into the ground that could be dated to the period of Roman occupation in Britain. Furthermore, discovered in one of the channels, a pair of graves, as well as a cremation site, was found.
Between the third and fourth centuries, it’s assumed that two women had been buried parallel to the ancient Roman road. However, the reason they were buried there remained unknown for a time.
It Was A Roman Tradition
Although the team was unsure why the dead had been buried next to the road, they eventually came to the conclusion that the positioning of the bodies was of significance to the Romans.
The Berryfields MDA statement explained that “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.” Although it may seem morose, it did have meaning.
There Was Also The Cremation Site
Beneath the cremation site that was also found was a ceramic urn that contained the remains of a man’s charred bones. The remains inside of the urn were then sent in for radiocarbon dating.
It was then revealed that the individual whose remains were inside belonged to someone that lived between the 2nd and 3rd century AD. This meant that the cremated remains were actually older than the two women that had been buried on the side of the road.
Following The River
With these new findings, the team decided to extend their research to the southeast, following what they believed was the initial trajectory of the ancient Roman road. Their research brought them along the banks of the River Thames where they found even more evidence of the ancient people.
There, they unearthed sizable pieces of timber. Upon this discovery, they theorized that these large pieces of wood were once used as part of a bridge to cross the river.
These People Had Been Farmers
Excavating off of the main road, the Oxford Archaeologist team also found signs that the Romans had used the land for agricultural purposes. It appears that these ancient people had constructed field and livestock enclosures, and most likely would have been seen by travelers using the road.
Many animal bones were found in the area that proved that those living during that time kept animals such as cattle and sheep on their land for a variety of uses.
Discovering The Pit
At this point, the archaeologists were yet to discover what many of them considered one of “their most spectacular finds.” In 2011, they got to work excavating a pit located just off of the Roman road.
The Berryfields MDA statement went on to add that “The pit appears to have functioned as a sump or tank – possibly associated with crop processing or some other agricultural or craft-industrial process.
Perfect Conditions For Preservation
While exploring the hole in the ground, it became clear that it was positioned in a depression in the earth that allowed for it to be filled with water at the bottom. This was ingenious thought by the Roman farmers, who seemed to use the hole for crop-processing or food production.
This way, they never had to fill the hole with water themselves. Furthermore, the waterlogged environment created the perfect conditions for the preservation of the items at the bottom.
A Lot Of Artifacts Survived At The Bottom
Typically, organic materials wouldn’t be able to survive intact over a period of thousands of years, yet the conditions of the moisture-laden pit managed to keep numerous artifacts whole.
From the pit, the team extracted shreds from a leather shoe, timber, pottery, a pair of animal skeletons, and more than forty coins. If that wasn’t incredible enough, they also discovered a tray and a basket that had been woven together with strands of willow and birch.
A Well-Traveled Area
In a November 2019 press release, Oxford Archaeology also revealed that the large number of items found both in the pit and on the road itself suggested that the area was a well-traveled one.
According to the report, the site was apparently, “at the intersection of several routeways that took its travelers both into the countryside and into several major towns.” As it turns out, the area was far more trafficked than previously believed to be.
Bigger Than They Previously Thought
Oxford Archaeology’s statement continued, explaining that the Roman town’s prime location “potentially identifies the settlement as a marketplace or an administrative center with extensive trade connections.”
This helps to explain the mass amount of coins found in the pit, and if there had been a lot of money coming in and out of the area, there was bound to be more floating around somewhere.
More Important Artifacts Than Coins
Incredibly, there were some items discovered in the area that had even more significance than the coins that were found. For example, the Roman basket that was found was very significant, considering that it had spent thousands of years underground and underwater, yet remained intact.
The Berryfields MDA statement expressed the importance of the basket found in the area, noting that “Most Roman baskets that have been found on archeological sites have been preserved in the dry conditions of North Africa.”
Don’t Forget About The Eggs!
Of course, the Oxford Archaeologist team also incredibly found four chicken eggs that were 1,700 years old! They were discovered beneath the waterlogged pit, with three of them remaining undamaged.
One of the egg samples was measured and was just over 1.5 inches. The researchers still couldn’t believe how these organic eggs had managed to stay essentially undamaged and untouched for the 1,700 years that they remained beneath the ground.
There’s A Reason The Eggs Survived
Considering what an incredible find these four eggs were, it’s no surprise to learn that they were the first of their kind to ever be found in Great Britain. In December 2019, project manager Stuart Foreman explained to The Independent that there was “a very good reason” why these eggs survived.
He noted that “In a pit that has been waterlogged for thousands of years, you get things that would never survive in a dry environment.
Only One Other Egg Has Been Found
Besides the four eggs found in Berryfields, only one other Roman-era egg has ever been discovered. Incredibly, in 2010, experts reported that they had uncovered the body of an ancient child in the Italian capital.
Unbelievably, found in the boy’s hand, was also a chicken egg from the same period as those that had been found in the pit in Great Britain.
Discovering the Roman-era eggs in both Great Britain and Italy raised some serious questions, such as how the eggs ended up there in the first place. However, many of the experts believed that the pit found in Berryfields either served an agricultural purpose or had been involved in the crafting of some ancient products.
One of the leading theories was that the villagers at the time might have put malted grain in the hole that they would use to brew beer.
However, some of the Oxford Archaeology team had different ideas on the matter, and that the pit wasn’t only used for making food or crafting.
They believe that the ancient Berryfields population gave the hole a new purpose and turned it into a wishing well. Considering that more than 40 coins were excavated from the bottom of the pit, this doesn’t seem to be an unrealistic theory, either.
It Could Have Been Used As An Offering To The Gods
Although the coins made sense for the pit to having been transformed into a wishing well, the same couldn’t be said for the other things found at the bottom.
In 2019, archaeologist Edward Biddulph explained to The Times that anything that was tossed into the hole was most likely a sacrifice or offering to the Roman gods. He continued saying, “Passers-by would have perhaps stopped to throw in offerings to make for the gods of the underworld to fulfill.”
Coming Back To The Eggs
If this is the case, the eggs being buried at the bottom actually makes some sense. Biddulph added, “The Romans associated eggs with rebirth and fertility, for obvious reasons.”
Interestingly enough, eggshells also have been found in several other archaeological sites based withing ancient Roman burial grounds. Nevertheless, this was the first time that a dig in England yielded a fully intact egg, let alone four of them. Of course, this made the experts find incredibly exciting.
They Could Have Been Used For A Funeral
Biddulph has also theorized that the Romans may have also used eggs as part of funeral processions. He noted that, ” 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 idea is also reinforced by the fact that there was also what seemed to be a bread basket found at the bottom.
Explaining The Eggs Was The Easy Part
Both discovering and explaining how the eggs got there was the easiest part of the whole ordeal. Now, the archaeologists had to figure out how to properly excavate the delicate artifacts without destroying them in the process.
Incredibly, three out of the four eggs had remained unbroken inside of the pit, and the experts had every intention of keeping it that way.
They Tried Their Best
Furthermore, the Berryfields MDA statement made it very clear how fragile the eggs were in their current states, considering they haven’t been moved in 1,700 years.
Unfortunately, even the experts at Oxford Archeology couldn’t manage to remove all of the eggs from the earth damage-free, although they were as careful with the process as they possibly could have been. They still managed to extract two sets of the shells.
The Smell Was Awful
Biddulph recalled that each time one of the eggs cracked, it released a horrendous stench that affected the entire excavation team. He told BBC that it was an incredibly “potent stench” that was released when fractured.
Luckily for the team, only two of these eggs suffered a fracture, with one of them leaving its smell within. Certainly, the entire team would have been devastated if not even one of the eggs left the pit intact.
They Were Still Successful
Despite the fact that a few of the eggs broke during the excavation process, one egg amazingly survived. This was a historic moment because it was the only Roman-era egg of its kind that was found fully-preserved in Great Britain.
Of course, broken or not, the Oxford Archaeology team did everything to preserve the precious eggs that they had found. They were then stored in a lined box and wrapped carefully in acid-free tissue paper.
The Egg Will Be Available For Public Viewing
Fortunately, the preserved egg will not remain in a box forever, as it’s too important of an artifact to be kept from the public. Instead, the egg will go on display at the Buckinghamshire County Museum for its significant historical meaning to Great Britain.
Project manager Foreman went on to tell The Independent that, “It’s incredible that we even got one [egg] out. They were so fragile. However, always keeping it intact will remain to be tricky.
There Were Also Failures
Even though the Oxford Archaeology team saw many successes during their investigation in the Berryfield area, not everything went as planned. Further excavations from the team turned out to be less successful. According to the Berryfields MDA’s statement, “no evidence of post-Roman settlement” was uncovered, which the researchers had hoped to find.
All of the archaeologists’ findings can be found in a 2019 book, which covers everything from the Roman-era economy to farming, and beer brewing. It also goes into detail about the eggs too.
The Lesson Learned
From the excavations that took place in modern-day Berryfield, a lot was learned from those working at the site and those who paid attention to the results. What was found, including the eggs, shows that there could be hundreds of thousands of years of history right beneath our feet.
If the archaeologists had allowed for the development of the area to continue without an investigation, the oldest eggs in Great Britain would never have been discovered, and valuable pieces of history would have been lost forever.