That’s a Large-Ass Egg, All Right!

Or: Some History behind Ostrich Riding, Part 2 of 7

Background: I ran into two historical images from California with ostriches used as transportation. That got me wondering about the history of ostrich riding. And that lead me down quite a rabbit hole.

I’ve divided my findings into separate posts (find them with the ostrich riding tag). Warning: serious early history and language nerdery ahead in Serious Academic Voice.

TL;DR – Tracing ostrich riding to a 3rd century BCE tomb find (a statue of Arsinoe II) from Egypt doesn’t hold up. The use of various ostrich products in human material culture dates back thousands of years. A few ancient depictions involve humans handling ostriches; however, extant sources don’t tell us whether ostriches were merely hunted or whether they were also tamed in the ancient world.

Below is the long story.

In Part 1, we discovered that tracing the history of ostrich riding to a tomb find of a statue of Queen Arsinoe II of Egypt (ca. 316 to 270 / 268 BCE) doesn’t hold up. What we do have, instead, is a 2nd century CE description of a lost statue of Arsinoe II riding a large bird, but later interpretations cast some doubt on the identification of the bird as ostrich. Some of the questions we were left with address knowledge of ostriches in Egypt and Greece. What exactly do we know about the presence of ostriches in the Eastern Mediterranean?

Arsinoe II’s bird mount could have been an ostrich at least as far as Egyptian access to them is considered. The ostrich range has shrunk due to overhunting, but it formerly extended from East Africa to much of Asia Minor and Arabia, including areas of both northern and sub-Saharan Africa, and perhaps even southern Europe. Nicolas Manlius has looked at the ostrich distribution in Egypt from late pleistocene up to present times (“The Ostrich in Egypt: Past and Present” in Journal of Biogeography 28, no. 8, published in 2001), but no-one seems to have studied their historical distribution in Asia Minor. It could be fun to really dig into the historical range further north to see how likely it was that peoples in the ancient Aegean had actual first-hand experience with wild ostriches, but it’s not what I’m truly interested in. (If anyone has any great sources, let me know.)

Ostrich eggs, skin, and feathers are mentioned or described in several written documents from the eastern Mediterranean-Mesopotamian area throughout centuries (see e.g. de Mosenthal & Harting for a partial list, esp. pp. 13-15). However, the earliest primary sources are items and visual art dating from the neolithic period onwards (e.g. Agius; Lucas & Harris; Phillips). The most famous examples come from the tomb of Tutankhamun, who ruled ca. 1332–1323 BCE.

Touregyptnet Tutankhamun Ostrich Feather Fan
Tutankhamun’s ostrich fan. From 1300s BCE. The Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt; image via Touregypt.net.

In Africa, ostrich eggshell beads are among the earliest human-made items, and both decorated and undecorated ostrich eggs were used (or imitated) as drinking vessels, canteens, and/or perfume containers in the Mediterranean-Mesopotamian area from at least 4000 BCE onwards (Agius; Conwell; Phillips; for two especially breathtaking examples from Mesopotamia, see Aruz and Wallenfels, pp. 118-119, items 70a and 70b).

Conwell 1987 Mesopotamian ostrich_egg_cup
An ostrich eggshell cup. From Mesopotamia, ca. 2500-2300 BCE. The Field Museum, Chicago; image via Conwell 1987.

Ostriches and ostrich eggs were depicted in tribute-giving scenes in Egyptian monumental art from the New Kingdom, but it’s been difficult to research details without access to a large research library. Depictions of ostrich eggs and feathers have been found at least during New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1070 BCE) in the tombs of Meryre II (El Amarna, tomb 2, 18th dynasty; e.g. Conwell) and Rekhmire (Thebes, tomb 100, 18th dynasty; e.g. Hodel-Hoenes). A copy of a wall painting of a servant with an ibex, a hare and ostrich eggs (from Thebes, tomb 78; for Horemheb, the last pharaoh of the 18th dynasty) was made for modern commercial resale, so there must (have) be(en) also an original.

Patrick F. Houlihan’s 1986 book The Birds of Ancient Egypt sounds useful, too, for it catalogs birds identified from representational art – reliefs, paintings, and hieroglyphs – but I’ve only been able to access a review. A thorough investigation of ostrich images in ancient Egypt would surely benefit from looking at Houlihan’s data.

(Sidenote: I found fantastic images on the Cow of Gold: An Encyclopedia of Egyptian Mythology wiki page on the ostrich. Some look like they come from Rekhmire’s tomb, and I’d say they almost certainly are, but none of the images are identified in any way at all so there’s no way to be sure. Frustrations galore! So, here’s a friendly reminder for anyone who wishes to be taken seriously: always mention your sources!)

If the natural range of ostriches ever overlapped with the Greek area of influence, there seem not have been enough to quench the demand for ostrich products. Eggs, especially, seem to have been popular trading material. The Mycenaean civilization (ca. 1625-1125 BCE) in Greece had contacts with ancient Egypt and imported luxury goods like ivory, semiprecious stones, Egyptian alabaster vases, and ostrich eggs (e.g. Aruz, Benzel & Evans; Papazoglou-Manioudaki; Phillips). Ostrich eggs found in the Etruscan “Isis Tomb”, dated to 625-600 BCE, were decorated in Phoenicia. Phoenician artwork was also found on intricately painted ostrich eggs from 5th-4th century BCE in Ibiza, Spain.

National Archaeological Museum Ostrich Egg Rhyton
An ostrich egg rhyton with silver aperture and gold and decorative copper bands. From Midea in the Argolid, Greece, ca. 1500-1400 BCE. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. (A higher resolution image is available on Flickr by Scumata.)

Ostriches themselves, not just their eggs, were also included in visual art in the eastern Mediterranean-Mesopotamian area. The collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (abbreviated as The Met below) include some 30 African finds with an ostrich connection. Among them, there is a predynastic bone comb with a prominent ostrich end from ca. 3900-3500 BCE. The Met also holds a 9th-century BCE plaque fragment with an engraved ostrich from Hasanlu, Iran, and a cylinder seal with an ostrich, an ibex, and fish from 9th-8th century BCE Mesopotamia, which cast light to the range of human interest in ostriches.

Ancient images of humans with ostriches seem much rarer. Tracking the sources of sources of sources, some dating back to late 1800s and early 1900s, has gotten easier with the Internet and various digitizing initiatives, but so much of early research still only exists on paper. (A heartfelt “Thank you!” goes out to all cultural institutions that publish their holdings online!)

The Met has a limestone relief fragment of a man carrying an ostrich from the Memphis area from ca. 1981-1950 BCE. The Cow of Gold: An Encyclopedia of Egyptian Mythology wiki page on the ostrich includes three fantastic images of ostriches with people, but since they’re not identified on the page, I haven’t had luck in finding exact information on them.

The Met Fragment Man Ostrich 1900s BCE
A relief fragment of a man carrying an ostrich, ca. 1981-1950 BCE. Memphite region, Egypt. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So, we do have some depictions of humans handling ostriches. However, what we have doesn’t tell us whether ostriches were merely hunted or whether they were also tamed in the ancient world – after all, an image of a man carrying an ostrich doesn’t discriminate between transporting a captured wild animal and a home-grown individual. There’s also a difference between a tame animal (one that’s used to humans, i.e. whose behavior around humans has changed) and a domesticated one (one that’s been changed as result of human activity, i.e., whose characteristics have changed because of humans). Basically, taming is what happens to individual animals; domestication is what happens to animal species (and plants and other organisms).

Thoughts for writers

  • Check definitions and synonyms when researching; terms can vary widely in meaning.
  • Be wary of ambiguous evidence.
  • Researching for writing is a balance act between finding facts and reigning in your curiosity. Frankly, I took too much time to goggle at images of the decorated ostrich eggs and ostrich egg vessels. They’re seriously gorgeous.

Selected Sources for Part 2:

Agius, D.A. “’Leave Your Homeland in Search for Prosperity’: The Ostrich Egg in a Burial Site at Quseir al-Qadim in the Mamluk Period.” In Egypt and Syria in the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mamluk Eras IV: Proceedings of the 9th and 10th International Colloquium Organized at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in May 2000 and May 2001, edited by Urbain Vermeulen and J. van Steenbergen, 355-380. Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 2005. https://books.google.com/books?id=Sk6tAUL5ZWYC.

Aruz, Joan, Kim Benzel and Jean M. Evans (eds.). Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008. https://books.google.com/books?id=gr5BgOwEJicC.

Aruz, Joan and Ronald Wallenfels (eds.). Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003. https://books.google.com/books?id=8l9X_3rHFdEC.

The British Museum. Jebel Uweinat. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_projects/all_current_projects/african_rock_art_image_project/featured_sites/jebel_uweinat.aspx (accessed September 10, 2015).

Conwell, David. “On Ostrich Eggs and Libyans: Traces of a Bronze Age People from Bates’ Island, Egypt.” Expedition 29, no. 3 (November 1987): 25-34, http://penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/PDFs/29-3/On1.pdf.

de Mosenthal, Julius and James Edmund Harting. Ostriches and Ostrich Farming. London: Trübner, 1877. https://books.google.com/books?id=8g0AAAAAQAAJ.

Hodel-Hoenes, Sigrid. Life and Death in Ancient Egypt: Scenes from Private Tombs in New Kingdom Thebes. Translated by David Warburton. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000. https://books.google.com/books?id=eptd8D2ljS8C.

Lucas, A. and J.R. Harris. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. [Place of publication not identified] Courier Corporation, 2012. https://books.google.com/books?id=wWHvAgAAQBAJ.

Manlius, Nicolas. “The Ostrich in Egypt: Past and Present.” Journal of Biogeography 28, no. 8 (August 2001), 945-953. Abstract is available via Jstor, http://www.jstor.org/stable/827488.

Papazoglou-Manioudaki, Lena. “Mycenae.” In Aruz et al., 274-278.

Phillips, Jacke. “Ostrich Eggshells”. In Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, edited by Paul T. Nicholson and Ian Shaw, 332-333. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. https://books.google.com/books?id=Vj7A9jJrZP0C.

Phillipson, David W. “Africa (Excluding Egypt) from the Beginnings of Food Production up to about 5,000 Years Ago.” In History of Humanity: Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization, edited by Sigfried J. de Laet, 412-424. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1994. https://books.google.com/books?id=e75T03MIp3sC.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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