Oldest tortoise bone discovered by Leicester archaeologist

Posted by mjs76 at Jul 14, 2010 02:55 PM |
This story is actually far more fascinating than it sounds.

Everyone loves tortoises. Maybe it’s because of their slow, steady gait and their peaceful outlook on life; the contented way they can devote the best part of a morning to eating a piece of lettuce and never look bored.

For much of the 20th century, tortoises were common household animals, imported in vast quantities, in frankly appalling conditions, to satisfy the pet trade. We know when this ended: 1988, when European regulation banned the import of tortoises (you can now only buy ones that have been bred in this country). But when did it begin?

Dr Richard Thomas from our School of Archaeology and Ancient History has pegged interest in tortoises as domestic pets to the late Victorian period after discovering the oldest known tortoise bone in Britain. It may not look like much, but this small femur – in terms of where it was found and what else was found there – offers a whole range of insights into our ancestors’ lives.

The latest issue of Post-Medieval Archaeology reports on Dr Thomas’ findings at Stafford Castle, a Norman motte-and-bailey which was extensively rebuilt in the early 19th century after falling into disrepair. The bone, from a spur-thighed tortoise, was found among the bones of dogs and cats dating from the late 19th century, suggesting that it was a family pet belonging to the castle’s caretaker at that time. This is important because, although the location is a castle, the date tells us that the animal belonged to an ordinary family.

The keeping of pets became increasingly widespread and popular throughout the Victorian era, as people started to keep more exotic animals (brought back from the corners of Britain’s massive empire). Taste in pets also expanded to incorporate animals with no practical value; dogs and cats help to keep premises clear of vermin, but tortoises are just sweet, slow and soporific.

The reason why Dr Thomas was able to spot the tortoise leg among all the non-testudine* remains is that he is the Head of our Bone Laboratory, a research facility within the School of Archaeology and Ancient History which contains an archive of more than 500 different animal bones.

The archaeological study of animal remains is known as either zooarchaeology or archaeozoology, depending on which direction you approach it. Current student research projects in zooarchaeology include: food and status in Saxon towns; the significance of horses in central Asia during the Iron Age; and the spread of turkeys from the Old World to the New World and back again.

Interestingly, spur-thighed tortoises can live for up to 165 years (and some species of tortoise have reached 200+ years), meaning that there are tortoises in the world today who were alive at the same time as the Victorian pet tortoise at Stafford Castle. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

* Dogs are canine, cats are feline - tortoises are testudine.