Friday, December 16, 2005

Rabbit mystery solved

It's the great debate of our age! Well, perhaps not, but it comes up in conversation enough to be one of those subjects bordering on an urban myth. Were there rabbits in Roman Britain? But the question's been solved. It must have, since it's been reported in British Archaeology January-February 2006, page 7.

There were certainly rabbits in the Roman World (see this lovely Samian pot) but did they make the leap across the Channel? Common knowledge says that rabbits were a Norman introduction after the Conquest in 1066. But various rumblings over the years, reported site-ings (sic) and now the evidence looks to be more substantial. Discounted: the rabbit bones from Thatcham, apparently sealed in an early Mesolithic context. So rabbits could easily have have been around in Roman times. No - radiocarbon dating proved otherwise, and the bones were of the size of a modern rabbit. The main problem is that bunnies burrow, so that their bones can be found in Roman contexts as they've excavate their way into Roman dirt levels.

Cue excavations in Lynford, Norfolk. This time they were found in a pit with only sherds of late Iron Age or early Roman pottery. What's more the bones showed signs of butchery. And at Beddingham Roman Villa in East Sussex, rabbit bones were found in a late 3rd century context. At both sites the bones were of smaller, Mediterranean size which supports a Roman date. Sorted!

So if you're writing a novel set in Roman Britain and want to include rabbits, go ahead. It might be wise to hint that they're unusual though, as the number of identified bones is a little low to suggest that they were freely skipping across the landscape! And no, there is still no evidence whatsoever that the Romans had potatoes ...


At 12:41 pm GMT, Blogger Carla said...

Can the evidence say whether the rabbits were probably bred in Roman Britain or probably imported? For example, if they were imported the remains might be found statistically significantly more often near major ports.
The reason for asking is that if they were bred in Roman Britain it's quite possible that some would have escaped and set themselves up in the wild and thus may have been present (in small populations) in later centuries, whereas if they were imported, the availability of rabbit ought to stop as soon as Roman trade stopped.

At 1:30 pm GMT, Blogger Alex Bordessa said...

It's certainly been discussed before. There's not enough numbers to suggest breeding at present. The sample is way too small. I rather suspect some people will be re-examining their Anglo-Saxon animal bone samples ... I'd also look to the amount of rabbit bones actually found from Norman sites, and later. How much do these bones actually appear in the archaeological record, when they are supposed to be there, etc. But bones aren't my primary interest, I have to admit.

My post was to do with a subject I've heard discussed under 'research accuracy' for novelists. So now they can have rabbits, but with the caveat I mentioned. I certainly wouldn't advocate rabbit *burrows* in a Roman Britain set novel - not yet, at any rate :-)

At 5:20 pm GMT, Blogger Stephen said...

I would have thought that once you started importing live rabbits, it would be difficult to stop them breeding, and also that it would be hard to stop them escaping - did the Romans in Italy keep their bunnies in cages/hutches or in more "free range" conditions? The latter would of course be more conducive to escape bids.

At 2:33 am GMT, Blogger Olga said...

Alex, interesting research! It's a bit early to say, but I hope you'll have wonderful holidays!

At 9:04 am GMT, Blogger Carla said...

Alex, in the light of the 'dormouse test' proposed by Mary Beard in the Graunaid's TV review of Rome back in October (,,1604178,00.html), is there much actual evidence of dormouse bones in a culinary context from the Roman period? I remember reading an excavation report that had found the main drain of a Roman public bath-house to be littered with discarded chicken bones - clearly the equivalent of Kentucky Fried had been doing a roaring trade in finger food - but I don't ever remember seeing 'dormouse' in the list of species. Perhaps it comes under 'other', or perhaps the bones can't be distinguished from ordinary house mice (who would no doubt be in the kitchens for their own purposes).
Hope you feel better soon.


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