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  • The Three-Thousand-Year-Old Toads of Hector of Troy? November 11, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing greatly enjoyed, a month ago, looking at one of the world’s oldest surviving animals – the tortoise Harry/Harriet that Darwin brought away on the Beagle and who – bless her – died in 2006. He received, from readers, notice of several other historical tortoises that he hopes to come to in time. However, he thought that for today he would satisfy himself with this extraordinary tale of Homeric reptiles from a science magazine dating to 1876.

    Can any [readers] throw any light upon the following passage, which is taken from Dr. Schliemann’s interesting work on Troy and its Remains published last year?

    ‘Among the huge blocks of stone at a depth of from 12 to 16 metres, I found two toads; and at a depth of 39 ½ feet, a small but very poisonous snake, with a scutiform head. The snake may have found its way down form above, but this is an impossibility in the case of the large toads, they must have spent 3, 000 years in these depths. It is very interesting to find in the  relics of Troy living creatures form the times of Hector and Andromache, even though these creatures are but toads.’

    I [the correspondent] have often before seen somewhat similar statements vouched for as facts by some, and as confidently declared impossible by others: if true, how do these toads manage to get enclosed alive in such places? I presume they are not bricked up in them for misconduct by the brother-toads, as used to be done to poor nuns who broke their vows… And how do they live on, even if torpid, for so long without air, breathing not oxygen, but carbonic acid? I confess I am much puzzled, and would thankfully be enlightened in some way. G.N.W. 12/191

    Beachcombing would normally start with a character assassination of Heinrich Schliemann (obit 1890). After all, Schliemann was both romantic and fantasist, having, Beachcombing would say, a ‘difficult relationship’ with the truth, be it the truth about his personal life or about the ruins of Troy.

    However, in this particular case it would be premature because Beachcombing has not been able to find this passage in Schliemann’s books. Neither the English nor the German editions seem to contain the quotation above. Either it was cut out in a very early edition – for understandable reasons – or Beachcombing is no longer as good at skim reading as he once was, or it has been ascribed to Schliemann by a practical joker of a kind all too common in nineteenth-century journal letter pages.

    Having said that G.N.W., apart from his lame crack about toads getting angry with each other, does not appear the type. Do the letters GNW contain a Victorian pun that has escaped Beachcombing?

    Of course, there have been claims for animals surviving buried in the earth over the years: particularly reptiles. And reports of such animals reached epidemic levels in the nineteenth century. Indeed, Beachcombing has one fabulous example from the 1800s of a group of craftsmen who used to bake toads into clay pots to make a profit out of overtrusting and curious naturalists!

    This is how seriously Beachcombing would take the report, be it by Schliemann or otherwise. Still he must admit to having been trasported for a moment…

    It is early evening and two toads are exchanging comments on that afternoon’s scrap between Achilles and a  – now dead – Trojan. There is a lot of shouting about men in their generations being like leaves on the trees. A bloke called Homer walks past and then the toads get a fabulous sunset. Life is good.

    ‘But listen’, says toad senior to toad junior, ‘winter is coming and soon we’ll have to find a nice hole for the winter. Just a few months…’

    Any thoughts on this account and its provenance? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    Dec 1, 2010: Beachcombing was particularly honoured to get this email from Ashley over at Sedition: ‘It’s not a toad but the lung fish can do this. Even out of water they live quite a good while… The Queensland lungfish at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has been part of the permanent live collection since 1933.  The official story seems to be that they can be dormant for about 3 years. I don’t know what species it was but I saw a documentary as a kid where they chiseled one of these things out of a block of tightly packed dirt that was just about sandstone. They put it in water – it looked like a crooked stick –  and it revived and ‘swam’ – limped/drifted is more like it – around for a few minutes before dying. They had supposedly dated the thing at… I can’t remember. It was 2,000 years or more I think and I want to say 5,000 years old but my memory is hazy and I saw it 20+ years ago (looked around for it but there is a band called Lungfish which makes the searching not much fun). I don’t know how reliable it was, etc, and so forth. [The link] wasn’t described in the article it but it certainly looks like what I remember from the documentary [1], [2].’ Thanks a million Ashley!

    31 Mar 2015: Bob Skinner has written ‘For over 30 years I have taken a particular interest in the “Toad in the Hole phenomenon” and I was intrigued to read your blog entry from 2010 about the alleged discovery by Dr Schliemann of two living toads during his excavation of the ruins of Troy. You quoted a Victorian Journal which cited a passage allegedly from Schliemann’s book on Troy, but stated that you had been unable to find this in the book. I don’t have the source I read to hand (perhaps the same Victorian Journal?), but I have located the original passage in the 1875 edition of Henry Schliemann’s book “Troy and Its Remains: A Narrative of Researches and Discoveries Made on the Site of Ilium, and in the Trojan Plain”  The relevant passage appears on p. 157,  which from the head of the chapter (p.144) is shown to be part of Dr Schliemann’s report written “On the Hill of Hissarlik,18th June 1872”. On the page, a footnote is provided to this passage by the book’s editor, Philip Smith B.A.: “We believe that naturalists are now agreed that such appearances of toads imprisoned for long periods are deceptive. Into what depths cannot a tadpole (whether literal or metaphorical) wriggle himself down? – [ED.]” Despite this sceptical commentary, the phrase “- Live toads coeval with Troy! -” appears in the summary of contents of the chapter at its head, and at the start of the book. Interestingly, Schliemann makes a further brief reference to finding toads in the ruins of Troy later in the book, p. 194 (in Chapter 11, which is dated 13th July 1872) : “Yesterday, at a depth of 13 meters (43 1/2 feet) between the stones of the oldest city, I again came upon two toads, which hopped off as soon as they found themselves free!”