Severan Feline Friends?

Vindolanda Trust - Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Interaction between cats and humans goes back as far as Ancient Egypt. However, some of our earliest clues to domestic cats in Britain come the Roman period. It is thought that they may have been kept as pets, but also to control the rodent population, particularly in and around the granaries where food such as wheat and grain was stored.

(Cat skull found during the 2018 ditch excavations)

Here at Vindolanda we find both cat and dog bones, as well as many other animals. Identifying whether what we have uncovered is a cat or a dog can sometimes be tricky, depending on what bones are found.

One main and easy way to distinguish between the two is by looking at their bottom jaw or mandible, and in particular, the teeth sitting in them. The cat has, on each side, 3 incisors (small teeth), one canine (pointed tooth), two premolars (larger teeth together) and one molar (largest tooth at the back). Simplified – three teeth together sitting along the main jaw line, a dog has more (even though there are some missing on this image).

(Top: cat mandible from 2018 cat skull above. Bottom: dog mandible from the 2017 excavations)

What is interesting about our collection of cat bones is that many of them were found in Severan ditch contexts (2003-2004, 2016, 2017, 2018).

Our aim of the next five years excavation is to find out more about the soldiers and people here during the Severan period (c. AD 208-212). In looking at the animal bone from the ditches it will be interesting to look at whether any patterns are emerging related to cats. Why were they in the ditches – thrown/fell/buried? Was it more popular to have cats as pets during this period? Was it a time where there was a rise in rodents? Was it linked to religion?

Further excavation and research will hopefully provide us with the answers.

(Cat skull found during 2016 excavations)

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