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Did the Romans introduce rabbits to Britain?

Image of a copper-alloy brooch in the shape of a rabbit

Brooch in the form of a rabbit

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    • When the bones of a Roman rabbit were found in Norfolk, newspapers reported that this might be the earliest bunny ever found in Britain.

      Well - it's not the earliest, but it is still a very important rabbit. Show Me has tracked down the experts to get the inside story on our furry friends, a story that goes back hundreds of thousands of years... long before the Romans got here.

      When oldies like us went to school we were taught that the Normans brought rabbits over to this country when they settled here in the eleventh century, about a thousand years ago. The discovery of this Roman-era bunny at Lynford means we'll probably have to forget that theory.

      We spoke to archaeologist Julie Curl who worked on the dig. She explained that whilst she has every reason to believe the rabbit is Roman, she still needs to run tests called 'carbon dating' to make absolutely sure exactly how old the bones are.

      This is a Roman mosaic of a hare, not a rabbit. See the longer ears? It was found in Cirencester in 1971.

      A photograph showing a Roman mosaic featuring a hare.© Corinium Museum
      One of the most interesting things about the bones is that they have cut marks, which shows they were butchered. Julie explains:

      'We're not sure if the rabbit would have been eaten, used for its skin, or both. It most likely would have been brought over to Britain as a live animal in a cage... We know, from evidence from Europe that Romans kept rabbits in walled or tiled enclosures.'

      Once the dating's done, the discovery will hopefully prove that the Romans brought at least one bunny over to Britain long before the Normans got here.

      But we do have proof rabbits lived here long before the Romans set foot on British soil. Remains of rabbits dating back half a million years were found at Boxgrove in West Sussex and Swanscombe in Kent.

      Palaeontologist Simon Parfitt of the Natural History Museum, who worked on the Boxgrove dig, told Show Me all about it:

      'We found all sorts of animals - from the tiny ones like shrews and bats to huge ones like elephants. All of these animals were living in the landscape and were buried together.

      We also found remains of hares, and a rabbit's tooth. This was quite a surprise, as previously the idea had been that rabbits were living in the Mediterranean coastal regions - around Spain, Southern France and Italy.

      We don't know if humans were eating the rabbits at this time - there's no evidence of that yet.'

      There's a very long time gap between the Boxgrove and Swanscombe rabbits and the Roman rabbit... almost half a million years, in fact. As far as we know no evidence has been found of rabbits existing in Britain between those two dates. So what happened?

      Julie believes they probably died out in the last Ice Age, only to be reintroduced later by the Romans.

      The tricky thing about archaeology - as the rabbit saga has shown - is that we can't ever really be sure. Each new discovery throws up new questions.

      Dr Andrew Kitchener, Curator of Mammals for National Museums of Scotland, agrees:

      'The question of the Roman rabbit is an interesting one - even if evidence of one rabbit has been found, does that mean the Romans were responsible for the success of the rabbit population in Britain today? Perhaps this one was brought over as dried or salted meat… maybe the Normans did bring over the rabbits that went on to breed and colonise Britain?'
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