A 5.5-inch-long pregnant Hermann’s tortoise was another casualty at Pompeii, but this time it was a different kind of natural disaster that caused death. It was an earthquake rather than the famous eruption that sealed this tough little lady’s fate.
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In 62 AD, a devastating earthquake struck Pompeii, and sometime after this, the poor tortoise died whilst trying to lay an egg, having been squashed under a house. Parts of the shell of the tortoise, along with its tail, remained intact. The remains of the fragile egg within her shell have been documented and added to the list of finds that have been made by archaeologists between the devastating earthquake of 62 AD and the Mount Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD, according to a press release by the Pompeii Archaeological Site .
“The ongoing excavation campaign at Pompeii continues to yield new finds and significant discoveries, confirming the extraordinary richness of this true treasure trove of history and memory which fascinates the entire world,” Italian Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini said in response to this unique find. The remains were discovered in a part of the city being repurposed for public baths.
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Archaeologist excavating the tortoise at Pompeii. ( Archaeological Park of Pompeii )
Between Earthquake and Eruption: A Tortoise Story
Seismologists and geologists believe that the 62 earthquake was a precursor to the volcanic eruption 17 years later, signalling an end to the long dormancy of Vesuvius. Shaking and aftershocks continued several days after the earthquake, causing a reasonable amount of devastation and damage.
Mark Robinson, an Oxford University archaeologist involved with the excavation project, explained that it was not possible to rebuild all of Pompeii, which had received substantial damage. In fact, flora and fauna from adjoining areas had moved from the countryside, into the town area. The tortoise was unlikely to be a household pet and was probably wild. In the past at Pompeii, tortoise remains have been found, though typically from gardens or homes of wealthy people.
Pompeii set out to rebuild itself rather quickly after the devastating earthquake, and the layers of reconstruction and refurbishment have proved to be of great interest to historians and archaeologists. In this interim period, the reptile entered one of the disused spaces and dug a lair for itself. Valeria Amoretti, who works as an anthropologist at the site, was quoted by Reuters:
“It had dug itself a burrow where it could lay its egg, but failed to do, which may have caused its death.”
The archaeologists and scientists at this site believe that the tortoise made her way into a workshop type of building that was too badly damaged to be rebuilt by the earthquake. Tortoises need a suitable habitat to lay their eggs – if unable to do so, they can retain them for a while, but a prolonged wait can actually kill them. Instinct leads them to choose death over laying an egg in an unsuitable place, a phenomenon called dystocia.
Tortoise egg in situ at the site and fully excavated. ( Archaeological Park of Pompeii )
Not the Last Tortoise of Pompeii
The tortoise’s presence in the city and the abandonment of the lavish house where the Stabian baths are now being redeveloped is an indicator of how “transformative” the post-earthquake reconstruction was, notes Director General Gabriel Zuchtriegel. Some of the formerly habited areas show abandonment, while lesser developed rural or forested areas are brought under the ambit of the nouveau Pompeii.
“… at the same time the expansion of the baths is a testament to the great confidence with which Pompeii resumed life after the earthquake, only to then be crushed in a single day in AD 79,” added Zuchtriegel in the same statement.
The site was that of a lavish home that had refined mosaics and wall paintings. It dated back to the 1st century BC, but it remains unclear why such a space was not restored, and rather taken over by the Stabian baths, reports The Daily Mail . Pompeii remains one of archaeology’s greatest finds, with the volcanic ash from Vesuvius acting as an unlikely preservative agent – so much so that the entire cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii were found in the 18th century, captured in its last moments.
“The tortoise represents a piece to be added to this mosaic of relationships between culture and nature, as well as community and environment, which represent the story of ancient Pompeii. Over the coming years, the study of organic finds and research into agriculture, economics and demographics at Pompeii and its hinterland will be a priority in our strategy of research, protection and valorisation, as will giving greater exposure to sites and monuments beyond the urban centre, such as the rustic Villa of Boscoreale and the villas of Torre Annunziata and Castellammare di Stabia,” concludes Zuchtriegel.