Britain's first pet rabbits were kept by the Romans, new Historic England discovery finds

Sarah Knapton
Britain's first pet rabbits were kept by the Romans - Dorling Kindersley

Britain's first pet rabbits were kept by the Romans, archaeologists have discovered. 

Excavations at Fishbourne Roman Palace, West Sussex, in the 1960s uncovered a leg bone belonging to a rabbit but it has only now been radiocarbon dated to around 1AD.

The Roman scholar Marcus Terrentius Varro (116-27BC) wrote that the legions brought rabbits from Spain, where they were reared in walled enclosures and then served up as a gourmet dish, but there has never been any evidence to back up the claim 

Although rabbit bones have been found in Roman remains before it was thought they could have burrowed down at a later date. 

The 1.6in (4cm) segment of a tibia bone was found during excavations in 1964 but it remained in a box, unrecognised, until 2017, when Historic England zooarchaeologist Dr Fay Worley realised the bone was from a rabbit, and genetic analyses have proved she was right.

New research also showed the bone had no butchery marks, and so the animal had not been eaten. It also had bone morphology suggesting it wasn’t wild, and so may have been kept in confinement as a pet.

Dr 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.”

Professor Naomi Sykes, from the University of Exeter, who also helped with the research, said: “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.”