I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Can animals live without food, water, or air for long periods of time while encased in stone or concrete? It seems highly improbable, yet stories of such things happening—usually involving amphibians—have been told for hundreds of years.
The Wamlingebo Frog
In May 1733, two Swedish quarrymen were hard at work cutting out blocks of sandstone for a building project when they made a startling discovery.
One of the men had just cracked open a large slab to find a frog sitting in a cavity inside the boulder. Their boss, master builder Johan Gråberg, was called to the scene. The animal appeared lethargic and when poked it simply closed its eyes.
Apparently, Gråberg was an impatient man, and he killed the frog with a blow from a shovel. Later that day, he suffered an attack of remorse “for being the Slayer of that extraordinary Animal, which might have lived for many hundreds of years within its stony Prison.” He recovered the remains and took them to Stockholm for examination.
Naturalist Dr. Johan Phil suggested that somehow frog spawn had penetrated the porous rock and had developed into an adult frog.
The poor creature’s body became the property of Count Carl Gustaf Tessin and he put it on display at his Akerö Castle museum. Later, it disappeared never to be seen again.
Frogs, Toads, and Lizards
Almost all the stories about entombed animals involve reptilian or amphibian species.
In the sixteenth century, Ambroise Paré was surgeon to Henry III of France. In translation he wrote, “Being at my seat near the village of Meudon, and overlooking a quarryman whom I had set to break some very large and hard stones, in the middle of one we found a huge toad, full of life and without any visible aperture by which it could get there.”
More recently, a toad suddenly appeared inside a block of limestone in Hartlepool, England. In April 1865, the local newspaper reported “The cavity was no larger than its body, and presented the appearance of being cast for it. The toad’s eyes shone with unusual brilliancy, and it was full of vivacity on its liberation.”
Just one more example, this time from South Africa in 1876. We can turn to The Uitenhage Times for coverage. The newspaper reported that a man found 69 small toads in a tree he was cutting into planks. The critters were about the size of a grape, “All about them was solid yellow wood, with nothing to indicate how they could have got there, how long they had been there, or how they could have lived without food, drink, or air.”
A Whimsical Interlude
Old Rip of Texas
They built a new courthouse in Eastland, Texas in 1897. Local legend has it that some pranksters slipped a horned lizard into the cornerstone time capsule.
The courthouse served the folk of the county for 31 years before it was torn down to make way for a new building. When the time capsule was opened there was a sprightly, live, horned lizard inside.
It quickly acquired the name Old Rip, after Rip Van Winkle, and achieved celebrity status. He was taken to Washington to meet President Calvin Coolidge.
When the reptile died he was preserved and can be seen today in display in his little casket in the courthouse. His story inspired one of the most famous Looney Tunes animations.
An Explanation for Entombed Animals
Some people said the animals must have been put in place by the devil. Others believed the occurrences to be examples of spontaneous life creation. A few saw the mischievous hand of newspaper proprietors building circulation-boosting hoaxes. Had the conspiracy theory industry been active a couple of centuries ago there’s little doubt the mysteries would have been blamed on the Illuminati bent on pushing their new world order.
One man, Professor William Buckland, a theologian and geologist, had a go at coming up with a scientific explanation. In 1825, he put 24 toads into blocks of sandstone and limestone. He sealed up the access holes and buried the blocks in his garden. A year later, he dug up the stones. The sandstone toads had died whereas those in the limestone block not only survived, but put on weight. But, hold on, the seal on the limestone block was damaged corrupting the study.
Buckland repeated the experiment, and this time all the toads, um, croaked.
The Sonoran Desert Toad found in the south-western United States and northern Mexico can hibernate for years underground. However, with the stories above we’re talking centuries and longer.
The only valid explanation, and a rather dull one, is that the people claiming to have seen live animals leap out of solid rock are simply mistaken.
- In 1856, The Illustrated London News reported on Italian workers drilling through limestone for a railway tunnel. As they split open a boulder out flew a pterodactyl with a 10-foot wingspan.
- The story of the Curse of King Tut’s Tomb had legs for quite a while. When Egyptologist Howard Carter opened the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922 his patron and financial backer, Lord Carnarvon, was at his side. Five months later, his lordship died from an infected mosquito bite. Creative journalists (lying is such an ugly word) put out the story that the mosquito must have been sealed in the burial place for more than 3,000 years.
- William Buckland, who attempted to explain the entombed animal phenomenon, was a trifle eccentric. He took it upon himself to eat every animal that had been discovered. He was particularly fond of mouse on toast, but did not care for moles or bluebottle flies. The English writer August Hare told the story of Buckland looking at the preserved heart of Louis XVI. Hare quotes the professor as saying “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before” and then wolfing down the regal organ.
- “The (Zombie-)Toad-in-the-Hole.” David Bressan, Scientific American, October 31, 2014.
- “1649 (pre): Ambroise Paré Finds Toad in Large Block of Stone.” Anomalyinfor.com, undated.
- “Entombed Animals.” Lee Krystek, UnMuseum.org, 2001.
- “Toads in Rocks and Other Bizarre Entombed Animals.” Brent Swancer, Mysterious Universe, November 7, 2018.
- “Toads in the Hole.” Mark Pilkington, The Guardian, January 20, 2005.
- “Old Rip.” Bward95, Atlas Obscura, undated.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on July 24, 2020:
Omg! I love Toad in the Hole!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 24, 2020:
Ann. By a wild coincidence my wife cooked toad in the hole for dinner last night. Yum, yum; although we can't get my favourite Lincolnshire sausages in Canada.
Ann Carr from SW England on July 24, 2020:
Great stories. I heard of an entombed toad being freed in England not so long ago but I don't remember the explanation. It wouldn't surprise me that they can hibernate for some years.
Love the Toad in the Hole picture (don't like to eat it though)!
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 24, 2020:
Rupert, they are still more mysterious things than these. But thanks for sharing.