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Home  > News  > Roman Rabbit Discovery - The Story Behind The Headlines

Roman Rabbit Discovery - The Story Behind The Headlines

April 20 2005

Rabbits hit the headlines when many national newspapers reported that the bones of a Roman rabbit had been found in Norfolk, and that this might be the earliest bunny ever found in Britain.

Well - it's NOT the earliest, but it is 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.

Shows a drawing of a rabbit, a side-view. It's drawn in black on a white background.

This rabbit was drawn by archaeologist Julie Curl. © Julie Curl, Norfolk Archaeology.

When oldies like me 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.

© Corinium Museum

Shows a portion of a roman mosiac. The design is of a hare, using creamy, oatmeal and brown coloured tiles.

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.

Shows a screenshot from a web page. A photo of a brown rabbit is surrounded by green grass. A cow's head and two grazing sheep cartoons are just showing.

If you're interested in rabbits, check out our Global Garden website for a yucky rabbit fact!

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.

Paleaontologist 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.'

Back in January another rabbit was in the news - a fictional one.

Click here to read our story about the book Peter Rabbit being translated into Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs by those clever people at the British Museum!

Screenshot of a news story featuring a picture of cover artwork for the Egyptian hieroglyph translation of Beatrix Potter's 'Peter Rabbit'.

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?'

We'll keep you posted on news of the Roman rabbit. If you have any theories on the history of rabbits, please get in touch!

PS: The team who found the rabbit are trying to raise several hundred pounds to pay for carbon dating - anyone who wants to help please contact the Natural History Museum.

Story by Anra Kennedy