A recreation drawing of rabbits at Fishbourne Roman palace. (IMAGE: Judith Dobie, Historic England)

A chance find made during re-examination of zooarchaeological remains from Fishbourne Roman palace could push back the timeline of the introduction of rabbits to Britain by more than a millennium.

During excavations at Fishbourne in 1964, a small – approximately 4cm in length – segment of animal bone was uncovered. It then sat in a box for decades until Dr Fay Worley, a zooarchaeologist at Historic England, recognised it for what it is: a tibia (one of the bones of the lower leg) from a rabbit.

Realising the possible significance of this discovery, teams from the Universities of Exeter, Oxford, and Leicester, together with Historic England and Sussex Archaeological Society, extensively examined the bone, including carrying out aDNA and radiocarbon analysis. The results confirmed that it was indeed from a rabbit and that it was also contemporary with Roman Fishbourne, not a modern intrusion.

The tibia identified as having belonged to a rabbit. (IMAGE: University of Exeter)

Rabbits are originally native to Spain and France, and it was previously thought that they were first brought to the British Isles during the Norman Conquest. While rabbit bones have been found in many prehistoric deposits, spanning from the Mesolithic through to the Iron Age, most have subsequently been radiocarbon dated to more recent times or have not been radiocarbon dated at all – and as rabbits have a habit of burrowing into archaeological sites and dying, such dating is essential to prove their association. The Fishbourne discovery is the first specimen to be dated to prior to the Norman Conquest, confirming that at least one rabbit was present in Britain well before its medieval descendants.

Fay explained the significance of her find: ‘I was excited to find a rabbit bone from a Roman deposit, and thrilled when the radiocarbon date confirmed that it isn’t from a modern rabbit that had burrowed in. This find will change how we interpret Roman remains and highlights that new information awaits discovery in museum collections.’

The bone does not have any signs of having been butchered for food, and the researchers believe it likely that it was confined, perhaps as part of the exotic menagerie that is known to have been kept at Fishbourne.

Further scientific analysis is ongoing, and it is hoped that this research will be able to determine the geographical origin of this specimen and whether it is related to modern rabbits. This work is being carried out as part of an Arts & Humanities Research Council project that aims to determine when and where Easter traditions (including the concept of the Easter Bunny) first began and when they were first practised in Britain.

A 3D model of the rabbit bone can be found at https://sketchfab.com/3d-models/fishbourne-rabbittibia-6d5a9f22bedc431fabe1ee-8a95bdda6c.

This article appeared in CA 352.

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