Burrowing down to carbon date ‘Roman’ rabbits


It’s lovely to see so much response (Letters, 19 April) to our rabbit story. With regards to concerns about the linguistics – our Leicester team is working on this. It is tempting to draw links between Latin terms and the Romans but it’s not always so straightforward.

The Easter E.g. team, who reported on the Fishbourne rabbit, are very aware of the famous Lynford “Roman” rabbit bones. The problem with those specimens is that they were not radiocarbon dated at the time of publication, which means we cannot be confident that they are Roman. Rabbits have this annoying habit of burrowing down into archaeological deposits and dying. Our Easter project has lots of purportedly Roman rabbits that we have carbon dated to … yesterday.

Carbon dating is vital for establishing the ancient history of rabbits. Currently, the Fishbourne rabbit is the only proof that rabbits were present in Roman Britain. Until the Lynford bunnies are carbon dated, we cannot take them as evidence for a Roman introduction.

We are hoping to join forces with the team who worked on the Lynford rabbit bones so that we can bring all these results together in a definitive rabbittastic paper.
Prof Naomi Sykes
Director of the Easter E.g. project, Department of Archaeology, University of Exeter

• The presumption that the Welsh word for rabbit comes from Latin, espoused by your correspondent Dr Evans, is correct. But for the naming of the animal we should probably be grateful to medieval monks; when they needed a word for something that didn’t exist in their language, they tended to adapt a Latin word. Thus, Irish coinín (rabbit) even has the diminutive ending of the original Latin word cuniculus. The Welsh word, I would guess, derived from Latin in a similar way. Of course, this won’t tell us exactly when the little critters arrived in the British Isles.
Terry Walsh
Cartagena, Murcia, Spain

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