These results highlight an array of contexts in which these extraordinary objects played roles as social actors. The first is within the producing culture. The analytical methods of the study of the British Museum eggs reveal that they were acquired from the wild in different regions of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa, and that egg sources may have fluctuated between relatively local and more distant locations in both the Bronze and Iron Ages. This implies that their trade networks were more flexible, opportunistic and extensive than previously thought (compare with Aruz et al. 2014, pp. xviii–xix).
It remains unclear whether an egg was traded before or after it was decorated, however. Contemporary shipwreck evidence—which is not especially plentiful to begin with for the Bronze and Iron Ages, relatively speaking—suggests that cargoes could carry raw and finished goods. For example, the Bajo de la Campana wreck of the late seventh/early sixth century BCE, found off the coast of Spain near Cartagena, carried amber, branch wood logs, and globs of resin or pitch as some of the raw goods traded, while finished exotica include boxwood combs, carved ivory dagger handles, elephant tusks, and worked ostrich eggshell (Polzer 2014; Roldán Bernal et al. 1995. The elephant tusks, some of which had Phoenician graffiti, may have been intended as finished objects, given that a number of the inscriptions are votive in nature, or as raw, perhaps recycled, material for ivory carving). On the other hand, the ostrich eggshells found on the Late Bronze Age Uluburun shipwreck, near the southwestern tip of Turkey at Kaş, were blown (emptied) but otherwise unworked (Bass 1997). Therefore, it is possible that some cargoes may have carried just unworked goods, or only worked products, or transported both. It is difficult to assess any such pattern at a fixed time, much less to determine diachronic and regional developments, because the nature of our shipwreck evidence is extremely variable. There are very few shipwrecks of Late Bronze Age date, and none between ca. 1200 and ca. 750 BCE, the period when movement between the eastern and western Mediterranean becomes more regularised; by the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, diverse maritime networks were operating around the Mediterranean, and involved cabotage and long-distance routes and maritime vessels (see Hodos 2020, pp. 116–122). The variable nature of our maritime evidence from the late second millennium to the middle of the first millennium BCE renders it difficult to determine the extent to which the first millennium BCE evidence may represent continuity of earlier practices.
The study also highlights the range of people involved in the full chaîne opératoire of luxury production. It starts with those who had to track the animals to their nest sites and take their eggs, whether by stealth or killing the parents. Either way, acquiring eggs entailed risk to the tracker. Firstly, it could take days to find nest sites, since a male ostrich’s territory may extend up to 20 km2, and nest locations seem to have no relation to nest sites from previous seasons within a territory (on nests and nesting habits, see Bertram 1992, which examines the South African species; the North African and Levantine indigenous ostrich species are now extinct, but given the general similarity of practices between other closely related animal species, it seems relatively safe to presume that their practices would not have been dramatically different to those of their extant sub-Saharan relatives). In addition, the ostrich was recognised as a dangerous animal, especially by the Assyrians, who used it iconographically partly to highlight the might of the king (Collon 1998; Albenda 2005, pp. 97–101). Furthermore, not only is it known that an ostrich can kill a human with a single kick, but other predators equally dangerous to humans inhabited the same ancient landscapes as ostriches, such as lions and elephants (e.g. Collon 1977; Albenda 2008; Karlsson 2016, pp. 133–140). Therefore, even if the tracker chose to kill an ostrich to acquire its eggs rather than merely steal the eggs, the bird itself was not the only threat. What kind of social impact did tracking and acquisition skills bestow upon the tracker (and anyone else involved in collecting eggs, for we do not know for certain that the tracker was the same individual to collect the eggs)?
There are also questions of exchanging eggs, even in areas where ostrich eggs could already be procured. Did eggs from different areas have different perceived values? Who conducted these exchanges? What arguments would an individual have used to persuade someone to acquire their ‘foreign’ eggs when eggs could be acquired more regionally?
Furthermore, the team learned from ethnographic evidence that ostrich eggs need to dry naturally for 6–24 months after blowing before the shells are ready to be worked; they cannot be put in the sun or an oven to dry to speed up the process (2 May 2017 interview by the author with J. Cutts, President of the former Egg Crafters Guild of Great Britain). This adds to the complexity of the question about trade of the eggs themselves, because we must now consider additional individuals responsible for their storage, and the impact the responsibility of secure, stable storage had upon those in charge of their care during this period. This may have also added to the eggs’ luxury status, since it represents a long-term investment before a return can be realised.
Either way, only once the eggs were suitably dried could highly skilled craftsmen proceed to undertake their decoration. Who determined the imagery depicted on the eggs? Were these solely at the discretion of the craftsman or did the patron have a say? How did such decisions impact upon an artisan’s own practices and behaviours in life? Traders were then required to transport the eggs from workshops and arrange for their distribution around the Mediterranean by sea and land; luxury goods required a type of secure storage on board to ensure they did not get damaged, misplaced, or stolen, influencing the behaviour of the loaders and perhaps crew members. All of this activity had to take place before an elite recipient could purchase or receive such an object. In short, individuals involved in the production and distribution of this luxury were varied in terms of time, place, occupation, and social status. Nevertheless, their engagement in the biography of these objects impacted upon their behaviour and perhaps social status, although the extent to which we can discuss this beyond speculating how, exactly, is limited, given that we have no direct evidence from the individuals themselves. Even so, we now have a better idea of how the luxury industry affected members of a wide range of society and in diverse locales considerably beyond their elite customers, much like it does today, despite our relative neglect in considering this aspect of luxuries serving as social actors.
These eggs also served as social actors between cultures, as more widely recognised already (see above). They are found in many different ancient Mediterranean cultures, who had distinctive material cultures, beliefs, practices, rituals, languages and customs, and who were often in conflict with one another. Nevertheless, these groups shared a common expression of what it meant to be ‘elite.’ The fact that these eggs are found consistently in elite contexts during the Bronze and Iron Ages around the wider ancient Mediterranean world, including in regions where ostriches were not indigenous, suggests that they played a role specifically as agents of shared status expression alongside their own socio-cultural specificities (e.g. Hodos 2009, 2020). That they remained popular, albeit in exclusive contexts, over the third, second and first millennia BCE demonstrates that they influenced elites in their self-expressions of what it meant to be rich diachronically.
By the second half of the first millennium BCE, however, ostrich eggs are found predominantly only in the western Mediterranean, primarily in regions associated with the Phoenician-Punic realm of southern Iberia, the Balearic islands and the north-west African coast, and their local networks within those landscapes. Their working does not appear to rely on such highly skilled artisans (motifs are mostly painted, and increasingly less elaborately: Savio 2004), and their find contexts are less exclusive, although still recognised as of comparatively elevated status. This hints at how the eggs themselves worked as social actors upon society more broadly diachronically, and how their status evolved over time, as well (further research on this dimension is ongoing by the author in collaboration with C. López-Ruiz).
Thus, these objects are extraordinary for reasons beyond their predominantly luxury status, challenging acquisition, and craftsmanship display. In addition to communicating common understanding while fostering localised differences between cultures and their individual users—in the more traditional understanding of objects as social agents—it is now clear that many more individuals were involved in the making of these objects than previously considered (if considered at all). A complex chain of interpersonal, collaborative relationships existed that necessitated social interaction, knowledge and understanding. The eggs thus had potential to impact upon individual, and group, behaviour and practice at every step of the chaîne opératoire. Arguably, there is still much we do not know about the extent to which these extraordinary objects were social actors upon and between those involved in their production and distribution. The extent of our understanding may also remain limited in the absence of emic records of those involved. Nevertheless, consideration of the entire production process draws out the complex and evolving impacts of the luxury material culture industry upon a number of social groups and individuals beyond wealthy consumers, and highlights more substantially the role luxuries play as social actors.