Earliest rabbit in Britain found at Sussex Roman site

Curator at Fishbourne Roman Palace
Curator at Fishbourne Roman Palace

Britain’s earliest rabbit was likely a Roman pet discovered at Fishbourne Roman Palace, experts have revealed.

A rabbit bone unearthed at the Roman site has been radiocarbon-dated to the 1st century AD, more than 1,000 years before the animals were thought to have been brought over to Britain.

First century rabbit bone found at Fishbourne Roman Place

First century rabbit bone found at Fishbourne Roman Place

Rabbits are native to Spain and France and it had been thought they came to this country in medieval times but the rabbit found at Fishbourne may well have been an exotic pet.

The 4cm tibia bone segment 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.

Dr Fay Worley said: “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.”

Britain’s earliest rabbit doesn’t bear any butchery marks and another analysis suggests it was kept in confinement. The inhabitants of Fishbourne Palace were also known to be wealthy and keep a varied menagerie.

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 it was a ‘tremendously exciting’ discovery: “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.”

Academics from the University of Exeter, Universities of Oxford and Leicester, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, carried out the analyses, together with Historic England and Sussex Archaeological Society.

Scientific analysis means the bone cannot be handled, but visitors to Fishbourne this week can see a 3D print of it and take part in an Easter hunt and other activities. View a 3D model of the bone at: https://skfb.ly/6GMGH.

Easter is the most important event in the Christian calendar, celebrating Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is not clear how, when or why the rabbit, or Easter bunny, became linked to the Easter festival.

The research team is using anthropology, (zoo)archaeology, (art) history, evolutionary biology, law, historical linguistics, natural history and religious studies to try to work out how modern Easter traditions first began and arrived in Britain.

The English word Easter was first documented in the eighth century AD by the Venerable Bede, whose treatise On the Reckoning of Time refers to spring celebrations in honour of the pagan goddess Ēostre, from whom Easter takes its English and German name. The first historical mention of an “Easter Bunny” is in fact an Easter hare, and is found in a German text from 1682.