Britain's oldest rabbit found at Roman palace

18/04/2019

Britain's oldest rabbit found at Roman palace

While the Easter bunny started appearing in the 19th century, it seems the rabbit itself is a lot older than previously thought.

Experts have found the remains of Britain’s earliest rabbit - a discovery which reveals bunnies arrived in the UK 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Rabbits are native to Spain and France. It had been thought they were a medieval introduction to Britain, but this fresh discovery has pushed that timing back by more than a millennium.

Radiocarbon dating of the bone, which was unearthed at Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex, show the rabbit was alive in the 1st century AD.

The 4cm segment of a tibia bone was found during excavations in 1964 but it remained in a box, not recognised, until 2017, when Dr Fay Worley, zooarchaeologist at Historic England realised the bone was from a rabbit, and genetic analyses have proved Fay was right.

Britain’s earliest rabbit doesn’t bear any butchery marks, and another analysis suggests it was kept in confinement. The inhabitants at Fishbourne Palace were known to be wealthy and kept a varied menagerie, so the rabbit could have been an exotic pet.

Visitors to Fishbourne this week can see a 3D print of the bone, as well as take part in other rabbit themed fun including an Easter hunt and on Good Friday, readings from an upcoming children’s book about the different Easter animals. If you can’t visit in person, you can view a 3D model of the bone here.

Academics from the University of Exeter, Universities of Oxford and Leicester – funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation – carried out the analysis, together with Historic England and Sussex Archaeological Society. Further research is ongoing that will reveal where the rabbit came from and whether it is related to modern bunnies

Professor Naomi Sykes, from the University of Exeter, who is leading the work, said: “This is a tremendously exciting discovery and this very early rabbit is already revealing new insights into the history of the Easter traditions we are all enjoying this week. The bone fragment was very small meaning it was overlooked for decades, and modern research techniques mean we can learn about its date and genetic background as well.

“We are looking forward to telling people about our ongoing research this week. There’s a lot we don’t know about the origins of Easter, and we’re learning more every day.”

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