Standing-cup and cover, formed from ostrich eggshell mounted in silver-gilt

Standing-cup and cover, formed from ostrich eggshell mounted in silver-gilt (1570-1580). British Museum Number WB.111. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

In meiano. Item unum scannum infra quod reperte fuerunt septem ova strussi.

On the 24th of July in the year 1397, two sisters, Venguesseta and Stereta, appeared before a judge of the city of Marseille to report the death of their father, Astrug Mosse, who had died the previous week. Aided by their cousin and guardian, Boniaquet Cohen—the record makes no mention of their mother, who we have to assume had died previously—the girls conducted an inventory of their late father’s estate. To judge by the contents of the estate, the family were at best middling in wealth. The girls lived with their father in two formerly distinct houses that had been combined into a single living unit, containing a total of five rooms: a kitchen, a pantry, a bedroom that also served as a dining room, a mezzanine that had been converted into a makeshift bedroom, and, finally, a curious space upstairs that housed a quite fascinating array of miscellaneous junk. Yet despite the family’s relative poverty, Astrug’s estate did possess some valuable or interesting things, including a glass lamp from Damascus, a small striped Barbary blanket, and six books written in Hebrew, though the books were out in pledge at the time of the making of the inventory.

One of the most remarkable finds comprises seven ostrich eggs, located inside of a bench-chest in the mezzanine bedroom. Though the Latin word ova translates as “eggs,” it is probably safe to assume that only the shells of the original eggs remained. Ostrich eggshells, African in origin, are exceedingly rare in the DALME corpus (this is the only attestation as of the present writing). The cosmopolitan nature of several of Astrug’s things, including the glass lamp, the Barbary blanket, and several branches of unworked coral, suggests that he was connected into far-flung trade circuits. These eggshells, like the coconut shells described in a previous DALME essay, were perhaps intended to be sold to a goldsmith to be worked into exotic objets d’art, such as the cup featured above.