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Today we have a guest blogger, Dr Naomi Sykes from Nottingham University. The Romans introduced many things to Britain: new building styles, settlement types and material culture but they also introduced the fallow deer (Dama dama dama) – or rather… those spotty ones that you see in the pars of stately homes.
A few years ago researchers from the University of Nottingham proved conclusively that fallow deer were imported to, and maintained at, Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex at some point around AD 70. Further evidence for established fallow deer populations in Roman Britain has since been found on the Isle of Thanet (Kent), where populations were present from at least the 2nd century AD. Genetic studies have suggested that these deer were, in all probability, brought from Italy but, so far, their distribution in Roman Britain seems to have been restricted to the southern England.
Imagine the excitement, then, when a complete articulating hind-leg of a fallow deer was recovered from Binchester. On the 18th May 2012, David Petts sent an email to Naomi Sykes from the University of Nottingham, Director of Dama International – a project investigating the timing and circumstances of the fallow deer’s diffusion across Europe. The email from David went as follows:
“Naomi…just dropping you a line as we have some possible Roman (or maybe even sub-Roman) fallow deer bones from our excavations on the Roman fort at Binchester. I saw your paper on Roman fallow deer in Journal Arch Sci and thought I should flag this up with you, as we are quite a lot further north than your other examples”.
Good call David! The Dama International team were on the case immediately, taking samples for isotope and genetic analysis.
The isotope data came back first and suggested that the animal was certainly born and raised in Britain – a promising start! The genetic results, however, were not what the team was expecting; the Binchester deer showed no similarity to other Roman deer, or with those from Italy, instead they grouped genetically with medieval and modern deer from Britain.
There were two possible explanations for these findings. First it could suggest that the Binchester deer was an animal imported from somewhere else in Roman Europe (possibly Turkey) and, given the continuity with the medieval British deer, it would indicate that all modern European fallow deer descended from this imported population. The problem with this explanation is that the Dama International team were pretty certain that all the Roman fallow deer in Britain died out with the withdrawal of the Roman Empire (there is no good evidence that fallow deer were present in Britain during the Anglo-Saxon period). If the Binchester deer was really Roman, it would suggest that the fallow deer population endured into the medieval period…and overturn all of Dama Internationals research…
The second possibility was that, rather than being Roman, the Binchester deer was instrusive, perhaps a medieval deposit. There was only one option: radiocarbon dating. After securing funding from the NERC Radiocarbon Facility, samples of the Binchester deer’s bone was sent to The Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU) – the results came back yesterday and….drum roll please… the deer has been dated to AD 1181-1269. It is a medieval after all, which explains why the is genetically distinct from the Roman deer. This finding allowed the Dama International team to sigh with relief: their research was still on track and it seems more likely than ever that the fallow deer introduced by the Romans did die out with the withdrawal of the Empire. These results still leaves an interesting question: why was a complete fallow deer leg deposited in a ditch in the 12th/13th century?! The most likely answer is poaching. In the medieval period, hunting and the consumption of venison were restricted to the elite, who liked to serve up venison on feast days. However, the concept of feasting was not lost on the peasants, who regularly poached deer to serve at their own parties. Poachers risked being caught by Forester and Parkers – we know from documentary sources that peasants were often in court for poaching. The best way to avoid detection was to get rid of the evidence by quickly butchering poached animals and discarding their bones. Is it possible that the Binchester animal represent a moment of Robin Hood-style poaching? We think it is, and it is certainly as good a story as finding Roman fallow deer in Durham. To find out more about Dama International visit http://www.fallow-deer-project.net or follow them on twitter @DeerProject