The Reporter
Issue 486, 25 November 2002
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Which came first – the writing or the egg?


Eulogies following the death of a loved one in medieval Egypt were written on ostrich eggs, research at the University has uncovered. Dr Dionisius Agius is helping archaeologists reconstruct the Arabic texts from over a hundred eggshell fragments found at Quseir on the Egyptian Red Sea coast.

The use of eggs for decorative purposes dates back to the time of the Pharoahs, and has continued in Egypt to the present day, spreading to other parts of the Islamic world. But finding eggs covered with Arabic writing is new.

Dionisius Agius“We’ve managed to rebuild one eggshell,” said Dr Agius (pictured left). “The text appears to be for the funeral of a young man and consists of quotations from the Koran and poetic verses, saying that death will be better than life. The ostrich egg would have been a durable material to write on, and we think they were placed on poles in a mausoleum.”

Reader in the school of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies, Dr Agius has been awarded £193,000 to reconstruct and interpret the Arabic texts on the eggs, and on other documents found in a nearby medieval rubbish tip at the site. These include paper, pottery, stone, wood, coins and leather. While the artefacts remain in Egypt, Dr Agius is working with high resolution images of the documents, and with the help of researchers in the school of computing, is trying to fit pieces together, and fill the gaps.

“Quseir was an important port in medieval times, for the pilgrim route to Mecca, and for trade with Africa, India and the Mediterranean,” said Dr Agius. “The pottery and stone tablets seem to be ‘delivery notes’ for the caravans which crossed the desert from Cairo to Quseir.”

Ostrich egg with Arabic textThe project is funded by the AHRB, and is in collaboration with archaeologists from the University of Southampton.

Say it with shells – eulogies and poetry were written on ostrich eggshells, to mourn the passing of a loved one


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