Tiny Roman tortoise found in Suffolk

A small Roman copper-alloy tortoise figurine has been discovered near the village of Wickham Skeith in Suffolk, England. It was found in July of last year by a metal detectorist. There is no precise date, but the stratigraphy of a comparable tortoise dated it to the beginning of the 2nd century A.D.

At just over one inch long and just under one inch wide, the sub-circular tortoise has a projecting rounded head with smaller projecting rounded feet. (The front left one is broken.) The tail is triangular and projects from the lower half of the back. The shell is mounded, and although it is heavily worn, two lines of crescent-shaped grooves are visible down the length of it. If there was any decoration on the ventral side, it is gone. The flat underbelly is heavily abraded.

There is no evidence that this small creature was originally a mounted decoration or a brooch. This was likely a free-standing figure.

Tortoises or turtles were most often associated with the god Mercury in the Roman world and Mercury is often found accompanied by turtles/tortoises in iconography. Mercury was the god of commerce, communication and travellers. A possible reason for the association with Mercury was that tortoise shells were used for making lyres, stringed musical instruments used in antiquity, the invention of which is attributed to Mercury in mythology.

The wee tortoise was reported to the Suffolk Finds Liaison of the Portable Antiquities Scheme for documentation and has now been returned to the finder.