rats in antiquity

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Unwelcome companions: ancient rats reviewed


  • Unwelcome companions: ancient rats reviewed


    The commensal rats - notably the black rat Rattus rattus and the brown R. norvegicus - are among mankinds most destructive and dangerous enemies, and have spread relent-

    lessly with humans across the globe. A decade after an important ratty meeting at the Natural History Museum, London, in 1981, this noxious rodent pest is again reviewed.

    This paper is submitted in honour of Juliet Clutton-Brock (Natural History Museum, London).

    Introduction In October, 1981, at the instigation of Dr David E. Davis of California, a small group of archaeozoologists and one historian met at the Natural History Museum, London, in order to review what was then known concerning the distribution of Rattus rattus in medieval Brit- ain. This event proved particularly stimulating (Twigg 1984: preface), and rekindled interest in the subject, especially the question of the rats presence in Britain before the medieval period; a possibility raised by the discovery of their skel- etal remains in a Roman well in York (Rackham 1979). It was the conclusion of the group that the York rats were unlikely to be an isolated phe- nomenon, an observation demonstrated two years later (in 1983) when further Roman rat bones (FIGURE 1) were recovered by Museum of London archaeologists (directed by Fredericke Hammer and Ken Steedman) from a securely dated 3rd-century well fill at Fenchurch Street in the City of London.

    Discovery of the Fenchurch Street black rat remains prompted Barbara West and myself (both then employed by the Museum of Lon- don) to collaborate in investigating their wider signifiance. West gathered together published and unpublished archaeological records of R. rattus in Britain, and drew up a provisional his- torical distribution map, while I collated archaeo- logical records from Europe and further afield to see how the black rat spread from its presumed homeland in southern Asia to northern Europe during the Roman era (Armitage et al. 1984).

    Further reports of early European rats came from Roman sites in central Europe (Teichert 1985), from 2nd-century BC Menorca (Spain) (Reumer 1986), from Roman York (OConnor 1988b) and from Picardie (northern France), where Vigne & Femolant (1991) found black rat as early as the 1st century AD.

    As OConnor (1991: 318) noted, in just over a decade, then, archaeozoologists in Britain and on the continent have largely rewritten the early history of R. rattus. But despite this ad- vance our knowledge is still incomplete; and this paper reviews chronology and pattern in the spread of R. rattus, identifying where in- formation is either patchy or lacking. Among the prioirity areas meriting further study are: 1 The pre-Roman spread of R. rattus from

    southeast Asia; 2 The apparent extinction in Dark Age north-

    ern Europe of R. rattus; 3 The reintroduction into northern Europe of

    R. rclttus c. late 9th century/early loth century;

    The apparent extraordinary large size of R. rattus in northern Europe during the later medieval period.


    Evidence for the pre-Roman spread of Rattus rattus from southeast Asia Among responses to Armitage et al. (1984) was the observation that I had neglected evidence for black rats moving from southeast Asia much earlier than the 4th century BC. In my original (tentative) model I had suggested the develop-

    * 1972 Roseate Lane, Sanibel Island FL 33957, USA.

    ANTIQUITY 68 (1994): 231-40


    FIGURE 1. Right lower jawbone of black rat Rattus rattus. Roman well, Fenchurch, City of London. Excavated 1983. Specimen is incomplete, with the vertical ramus missing (broken in antiquity). (Photo TJ. Hurst/Museum of London.)

    ing of maritime trade between Egypt and India during the Ptolemaic (323-30 BC) and Roman/ Coptic (50 BC-AD 641) periods as allowing rats to spread from their southeast Asian homelands, with a peak dispersal during the 2nd century AD when Eurasian (Roman/Greek-ArabIndian) eco- nomic and cultural contact reached its height (Barraclough 1989: 70). By this model, the prin- cipal entry route into the Mediterranean - and eventually Europe -was via the Red Sea through the entrepot of Alexandria.

    Expanding knowledge of ancient trade and zooarchaeological evidence make it necessary to revise this model. We now know of an ex- tensive maritime trade network operating be- tween the Harappan and Mesopotamian civilizations as early as the 2nd millennium BC (Neyland 1992), with much commerce be- ing handled by middlemen merchants from Dilmun (modern Bahrain and Failaka located in the Persian Gulf). Such long-distance sea- trade became feasible with the innovative de- velopment of plank-built watercraft, equipped with a single central mast supporting a sail of woven rushes or cloth. In such vessels rats could have been unwittingly transported di- rect from the northwest Indian coast to ports in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, evidence of their early presence in the Near East has come from Tell ISa Bahriyat, Iraq, in levels dated c. 1500 BC (Boessneck & Ziegler 1987). Having then invaded Mesopotamia, black rats could have

    been further transported, again unwittingly, along the extensive overland trade routes (Oliphant 1992: 20) southwards into Egypt or northwards through the Levant into Asia Minor, thence, at a later date, via the maritime commerce routes throughout the Mediterranean littoral, and, later still, via the RhBne-Rhine trade route into southern and northern Europe.

    In this revised model, ancestors of black rats found today throughout the Mediterranean and northern Europe originated from those carried out of the Indus Valley into Mesopotamia as early as the 2nd millennium BC. It follows, on the basis of the cytotaxonomic maps of Niethammer (1975) and Yosida (1980), all of these rats should be of the Asian karyotype (with 2n=42). Yet genetic studies of modern commensal R. rattus in these regions reveal that the only karyotype represented is the Oceanian type (with 2n=38), which would seem to indi- cate an ancestral origin in southern India, as discussed in Armitage et al. (1984: 379).

    In order to reconcile the apparent disparity in the cytotaxonomic and zooarchaeological evidence, two explanations may be considered: 1 The geographic ranges of the Asian and

    Oceanian karyotypes as documented by modern geneticists do not accurately reflect the true distribution of these types in an- cient times, when the range of the Oceanian type may have extended much further northwards into the Indus Valley; or


    2 Asian type rats did spread from northwest India to southwest Asia and Asia Minor during the 2nd millennium BC, but failed to establish themselves permanently.

    Some support for the second scenario comes from the Greek Dark Age (Early Iron Age) site at Nichoria in southwest Greece, where R. rattus was noticeably absent from an otherwise very rich small mammal faunal assemblage that was excavated from apithos (storage jar) which had served as a pit-fall trap for unwary small creatures living on the acropolis c. 1050-975 BC (see Sloan & Duncan 1978: 75). Perhaps, then, there was no continuity in the dispersal of R. rattus from the 2nd millennium BC through to the Roman period, and it was a much later, second wave of rats from southern India that established a permanent rat popula- tion in Egypt/Mediterranean, which in the Roman period came to invade Europe.

    More problematic is the claim by Tchernov (1984) that commensal R. rattus has occupied the coastal region of northern Israel since the Natufian ( c . 9500-7500 BC). Certainly the Natufian adoption of a sedentary way of life centred on proto-villages with storage pits for grain harvested from the wild, created condi- tions favouring infestation by rats. But where did they come from? If commensal R. rattus originated elsewhere (in sub-tropical southeast Asia), it is difficult to explain them in the Le- vant at so early a period. Tchernov overcomes this problem by suggesting that R. rattus is na- tive to the southern Levant, where it has lived since the end of the Pleistocene. Before accept- ing this, however, we should re-examine the stratigraphic integrity of the Natufian rodent bones, to be sure they are not contaminated from more recent levels.

    Extinction in the Dark Ages While R. rattus is known to have been present in Roman Britain, its fine-scale distribution there is poorly understood. In Britain, and throughout northern Europe, was R. rattus mainly confined to the ports and larger urban centres, less common in, or even entirely ab- sent from, rural districts? Reumer (1986) thinks so, as rat was absent from a large sample of small mammals he examined from the Roman levels in the town of Tiddington near Stratford, yet he acknowledges the inland spread of this species by the 5th century AD (there were rat

    bones in the sub-Roman levels at Wroxeter: Armitage et al. 1984).

    Our reconstruction of rat distribution in later Roman times will have to take account of the economic upheavals of that period. As early as the mid 2nd century AD, southern and cen- tral urban centres such as Londinium experi- enced decline, with greatly reduced densities of human occupation (Sheldon 1975; Merri- field 1983: 147; Marsden & West 1992), this was accompanied by a shift in socio-economic emphasis to the rural (villa) estates which func- tioned as self-reliant working farms and/or luxurious country houses (Hills 1986: 130), all of which probably affected rat populations of the urban centres. Although the rat bones in 4th-century deposits at Crosswall in the City of London (Armitage et al. 1984) indicates con- tinuity of rat occupancy, actual rat numbers in London and other