Eggs – Archaeological Records & Artifacts from Pre-History – Part I

“All the eggs a woman will ever carry form in her ovaries while she is a four-month-old fetus in the womb of her mother. This means our cellular life as an egg begins in the womb of our grandmother… all the way back through the grandmothers to the first mother.”

Layne Redmond, When the Drummers were Women

In the dim recesses of our minds, long before we can even begin to remember, there was Mother. Not our mama, the one whose unique touch, smell and mannerisms nurtured us as an infant.  What I’m referring to here is The Great Mother, indescribable, numinous, mysterious, She who is the cradle of life, who carries the germ, who carries all the eggs of the future.

Documentation, not speculation

The Egg has held symbolic sway over humans for untold millennia, and this is no mere speculation. The Egg, and its connection to the regenerative powers of the Great Mother – including the creation of Universe itself – represents all Life with a capital “L”, from the very beginning to the very end. The egg forms both the womb and the tomb for early humans, and there many examples throughout the world which document this oldest of motifs. While we might wonder about the actual beliefs and mental processes of early humans, the evidence is clear that people took nothing for granted when it came to the here, the now, and the hereafter. Our so-called primitive ancient ancestors gave careful attention to design and detail in their artistic creations, demonstrating the spiritual significance of this cyclic regeneration. Archeological evidence of egg design is pan-global, with the majority of documentation for egg-Goddess culture originating in Europe and the Near East.

Bird Goddesses & Creation Goddesses

At the Grotte du Pech Merle, a fabulous cave in south-central France which was “re-discovered” in 1922, there are wall paintings which portray female figures with decidedly egg-shaped buttocks. Also depicted in stylized yet easily-recognizable images are paintings of anthropomorphic bison-women, bison herds, decorated horses, human figures (shamans?), patterned dots, as well as hand prints and hand “stencils”, each image awe-inspiring and fascinating. These paintings date back 12,000 to 29,000 years ago, and while not part of a World Heritage Site, Grotte du Pech Merle is one of the few prehistoric cave preserves still open to the public.

That Creation was hatched from a Universal egg was a noticeable and widespread belief. For example, dating back to the Magdalenian culture of Western Europe – approximately 12-17,000 years ago – a tiny figure made of polished lignite only 1-3/4-inch high was unearthed near Petersfel in Baden, Germany: a headless, featureless form except for the remarkable egg-shaped buttocks. Abstract artist and author of the archival LADY OF THE BEASTS, Buffie Johnson notes that this particular type of “silhouette is found so frequently that it must be considered a purposeful convention.” This ever-present motif is found on engravings as well as sculptural pieces. With a posture invoking that of an egg-carrying Bird Goddess, similar engravings have also been found in the caves at La Roche, Dordogne, France (which is a UNESCO World Heritage site). The paintings and artifacts from this period indicate that the egg was a potent magical symbol.

The concept of a female Creator/Bird Goddess is demonstrated by multitudes of egg-inspired figures which have been unearthed, their age going back at least twenty-five thousand years (before the last major Ice Age), from approximately the 30th until the 5th millennia BCE. These are the kind of relics, from beyond antiquity, that boggle the mind. While many of us are quick to applaud ourselves for innovation and technology, a better understanding of our rich artistic and spiritual history and a deeper sense of humility and child-like wonder might help us to realize what our ancient ancestors were actually capable of – without the luxury of hot showers or electronic devices, and certainly without a big-box store down the street. To paraphrase a mid-20th century physicist-philosopher, Imagination is More Important than Knowledge.

Let us explore the “Old Europe” time frame as outlined by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas in her female-empowering tribute to ancient history, LANGUAGE OF THE GODDESS. This time frame includes the early Bronze Age (approximately 4000-3000 BCE), and reveals most of the evidence concerning eggs and Goddess culture as being represented by pottery, sculpture, and funerary themes, including womb-tombs and decorated caves. Numerous small sculptures dating back at least seven thousand years (c. 5500 BCE) illustrate examples of bird-like human female figures, often featuring elongated bodies with stylized bird faces and, again most notably, the exaggerated shape of an egg forming the figures’ buttocks. Sometimes these figures were carved or painted with designs such as spirals, concentric circles, crosses or X’s, and swirling forms. When considering these figures, the full buttocks symbolize regeneration in comparison to breasts, which symbolize nourishment, and were often absent from these particular sculptures, possibly indicating the immense generative powers these Goddess figures were made to represent.

Womb-Tombs & Graves

The Great Goddess of what is called the Stone Age or Paleolithic symbolized both death and regeneration, the ever-repeating continuity of life. She is the cold winter tomb as well as the fertilized egg of the womb, and also the womb of universal life itself. Many graves from the Megalithic period in Western Europe have been discovered, resembling egg shapes as well as stylized uterus and vagina shapes.

Within some of these egg-shaped graves or hypogeum found on the Mediterranean island of Malta (Greek “hypo” under, and “gaia” Mother Earth), archaeologists found a number of small fish sculptures, distributed and placed on benches or couches, which are believed to represent the regeneration of the Great Mother’s creation. From the Neolithic Minoan and Mycenaean cultural regions of Crete and Greece respectively, sculptures of cattle painted with net designs, or eggs overlaid with a net motif, have also been excavated, the significance being that nets are believed to symbolize the amniotic water of life.

Other decorative Goddess motifs are also widely recognized, including V’s and triangles. In the southeast region of Italy near Scaloria, vases dating from 5300-5600 BCE were decorated with these symbols of regeneration, while plant forms, sun/star shapes, and eggs were also observed. From the Diana period (Gimbutas’ term) at the end of the 5th millennium – and cut directly from out of a mountainous stone outcropping near Lecce in Apulia (the heel of the boot) – an egg-shaped tomb was discovered, containing a skeleton in a crouching (or fetal) position.

A well-documented burial site in the former Yugoslavia (modern-day Serbia) called Lepenski Vir, dating back to 6500 BCE and spanning over a thousand years active use, revealed more than fifty temples, each furnished with red limestone floors and egg-shaped altars. One of these temples revealed an egg-shaped sandstone sculpture, painted red with ochre, and etched with markings to represent a vulva. Also found at Lepenski Vir were further symbols of regeneration: over fifty round, oval and elliptical (egg-shaped) sculptures were discovered, many featuring anthropomorphic faces and breasts or zoomorphic fish faces, some of which were carved with labyrinth designs. These artifacts fuel the imagination.

Excavations in the area of the Ozieri culture of the late Neolithic period, and located in what is now northern Sardinia, are particularly noted for the egg-shaped subterranean tombs called Domus de Janas or “witch’s houses”. While some of the tombs are quite elaborate (they number in the hundreds), all display relief carvings of regeneration symbols: ram’s or bull’s horns (shaped like a crescent moon, and used as a symbol of regeneration for over a thousand years), vulvas, hourglass shapes, and oculi (eye-shapes). The underground structures were not merely tombs for the dead, but temples celebrating the new life waiting beyond physical death. The egg-shaped tombs of the Ozieri region/period were easily accessible, and although they were robbed without ceremony or documentation many centuries ago of any remaining artifacts, the sculptural elements and iconography left behind still remains in the form of bas-relief and incisions on the walls of the tombs. Rarely have actual human bones been found in these chambers, suggesting perhaps other activities having taken place.

Similar structures on the Mediterranean island nation of Malta dating back to c. 4000 BCE were also cut right into stone walls. One of these tomb-temples contained an early portrayal of a Death/Regeneration Bird Goddess figure. The temples themselves resemble an egg/womb. Some of the temples symbolizing the Goddess of regeneration were constructed to display the ubiquitous egg-shaped buttocks, and the entrances to these temples appear to have a north-south alignment. Possibly one of the most well-known artifacts to hail from Malta is called The Sleeping Lady of the Hypogeum at Hal Saflieni. One of the remarkable features of this sculpture is, again, the generous egg-shaped buttocks; another feature is the manner in which her body is laying, as if sleeping on a couch with her head cradled in her arm, suggesting the possibility of sleep or dreaming… even though she was found in a tomb.

Decorative motifs

From the 5th millennia BCE Karanovian culture of present-day Bulgaria, barrel and cylindrical forms of pottery were the most common style found, and goddess symbols were frequently used to decorate these vessels – triangles, spirals, crescents, eggs. Grey or graphite base color was often encrusted with a gilded design, indicating advanced technological prowess in regard to the firing temperatures of minerals and the timing of the glaze process. Also found in Bulgaria from about the same period were thirty-two sculptures inside a single temple, each one a Snake goddess (a regeneration motif), while the walls were decorated with red-colored eggs, spirals, and concentric circles. Decorated columns accompanied the eggs, possibly phallic symbols amongst the feminine eggs.

There are other cultures whose ceramic creations are equally as noteworthy. Some of the most deeply-explored and richest cultures of Old Europe lies just north of the Carpathian Mountains, in the region of Romania known as Cucuteni, and including part of Ukraine known as Tripolye. According to Gimbutas (p. 109), Cucuteni ceramic items “surpassed all contemporary creations” of its time, dating back to nearly 4800 BCE. Bichrome and trichrome paintings, usually white, red and black, decorated elegant vessels of various shapes, the painted designs most often in a meander, chevron or egg motif. In fact, late Cucuteni period excavation reveals evidence of a rotating wheel device for pottery building, possibly an early potter’s wheel?

Food gathering progresses to food producing in these early Meso- and Neolithic economies of the 7th millennium, especially in the western European regions of contemporary Spain and France. Fish and mollusks were traded, as well as sheep, goats and decorated shell-impressed Cardial (a type of shell) or Impresso (for “impression”) pottery. Deep egg-shaped bowls from 6500-6000 BCE began appearing in another stratum of the excavation site known as the Cora Fosca stratigraphy. The inhabitants of this region of current-day Spain were transitioning to permanent occupation as evidenced by remains found on the floors of these excavations. Grains such as emmer wheat, einkorn wheat and barley have been found, along with other cereals (and also acorns) indicting early grain-farming.

Vessels, Sculpture & Engraving

Egg motifs and decorated eggs have also been found in other regions of the world. In pre-dynastic Egypt, ostrich eggs have been found in Neolithic burial sites; the eggs were etched with designs depicting foliage, animal forms, as well as geographic meanders or zig-zags. The ancient Greeks also placed eggs on the fresh grave of a loved one, and we can extrapolate that they used this potent magical object to assure resurrection. An egg-shaped chick wearing an etched “necklace” was found in Turkey and dates from 1600 BCE. The universal combination of chick and egg represents initiation, transformation and “the mysteries of the twice-born” according to Buffie Johnson in LADY OF THE BEASTS (p. 92). This initiation theme also appears in China and other cultures throughout Asia.

While not associated with burial sites, ancient people of southern Africa also etched ostrich eggs, with some artifacts dating back at least 60,000 years. The designs found on some 270 shell fragments at the Diepkloof Rock shelter in contemporary South Africa include repetitive lines (called a hatched-band motif) and dots, which some archaeologists believe to be a form of symbolic communication. There were also other engravings found with more stylized, artistic patterns. Some of the ostrich eggshells were deliberately pierced, and were most likely used as water vessels, as even some modern hunter-gatherer people of southern Africa still use. Pieces of fossilized pigment such as ocher have also been found etched with similar hatch-band designs. Another cave also in South Africa, called Blombos, revealed more pieces of etched pigment, and while no egg fragments were found, the ochre pieces are believed to be even older than the Diepkloof site, dating from 75,000 to 100,000 years ago.

As was mentioned previously, the juxtaposition of the womb-tomb in these early societies gives us much information as well as speculation about the burial practices in Old Europe. Contrasted with Indo-European burial remains, it would appear that the earlier cultures anticipated a cycle of regeneration emanating from the Great Mother after death. Their grave goods focused on ancestors, but most were simple and symbolic. Some of the megalithic structures, such as those found at Nitra in modern-day Slovakia, had inner tombs accessed by hallways symbolic of the vagina, flanked by walls suggesting legs. These halls were often painted with red ochre, and sometimes the interred bodies were sprinkled with it, the color red being equated with life.  Even simple graves are shaped like an egg, and sometimes an egg-shaped pot held a person’s final remains, especially if that person was a child. In comparison to these indigenous European cultures, the Indo-European tribes from the east emphasized a lineal continuity to life, with emphasis on a monotheistic, powerful male godhead, while grave goods were highlighted by  personal wealth (weapons, tools, horses), lavishness and social standing, with a focus on life continuing “as is” in the afterlife, rather than regenerating into a new life.

In 2006, excavation under the Vatican revealed many archeological treasures, not the least of which were two separate burials, one of a child about 3-4 years old, and another of an infant, both found with a hen’s egg placed with the body. The toddler and the baby were buried in approximately 50-175 CE, at the very beginning of the Christian era. As they are strongly associated with rebirth, the connection of eggs with the tomb of Christ makes for powerful symbolism.

©  Doreen Shababy, from a work in progress.