Nearly 2,000 years ago, a pregnant tortoise took refuge in an abandoned home in Pompeii. But then Mount Vesuvius erupted, covering her in volcanic rock and ash. Now, archaeologists excavating the ancient city have found the remains of the 5.5-inch-long Hermann’s tortoise and her egg.
The findings add a new layer of detail to what experts know about the period between 62 C.E., when Pompeii was hit with an earthquake, and 79 C.E., when it was devastated by the volcanic eruption. Archaeologists discovered the remains in a part of the city that was being repurposed for public baths.
Archaeologists think the tortoise made her way into a building that was too badly damaged by the earthquake to be rebuilt, but that she had not yet laid her eggs by the time Mount Vesuvius erupted. If tortoises cannot find a suitable habitat in which to lay their eggs, they can actually retain them—but if they wait too long, they will eventually die, the team explains in a statement.
“This lets us reflect on Pompeii in this phase after the earthquake but before the eruption, when many homes were being rebuilt, the whole city was a construction site, and evidently some spaces were so unused that wild animals could roam, enter and try to lay their eggs,” Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Pompeii archaeological site, tells Nicole Winfield of the Associated Press (AP).
Though the tortoise could have been a household pet, experts say she was more likely to have been a wild tortoise that made her way into the city from the countryside. After carefully removing the remains from the site, researchers will study them further in the lab.
In the past, archaeologists have uncovered other tortoises at Pompeii, although they’ve found them in gardens or in the homes of wealthy residents.
“Pompeii was substantially wrecked, and not everywhere could be rebuilt after the earthquake,” Mark Robinson, an archaeologist at Oxford University who works on the Pompeii excavation project, tells BBC News’ Leo Sands. “The flora and fauna from the surrounding countryside had moved into the town."
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius is, as Smithsonian magazine’s Doug Stewart wrote in 2006, “undoubtedly history’s most storied natural disaster.” Pompeii was a Roman city in what is today southwestern Italy; at the time of the catastrophic eruption, it was home to some 10,000 to 20,000 people. Though many residents of Pompeii and nearby communities evacuated, an estimated 16,000 people died as a result of the natural disaster.
Survivors abandoned the city, which was covered by a thick layer of rock and ash. The volcanic blanket preserved Pompeii for centuries, until explorers discovered the city frozen in time in 1748. Today, archaeologists continue to explore the site, finding everything from horses to human remains to detailed frescoes. Last month, researchers were even able to sequence the DNA of a man who died in the city.