Rabbit photographed on a stone wall at Housesteads Roman Fort, Hadrian's Wall
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Rabbit photographed on a stone wall at Housesteads Roman Fort, Hadrian's Wall in 2007. © Historic England DP046923
Rabbit photographed on a stone wall at Housesteads Roman Fort, Hadrian's Wall in 2007. © Historic England DP046923

Britain’s Earliest Easter Bunny Found at Roman Palace

Experts have found the remains of Britain’s earliest rabbit - a discovery which reveals bunnies arrived in the country 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.

When did rabbits first come to Britain?

Rabbits are native to Spain and France. It had been thought they were a medieval introduction to Britain, but this fresh discovery has pushed that timing back by more than a millennium.

Radiocarbon dating of the bone, which was unearthed at Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex (scheduled ancient monument and listed Grade II*), shows the rabbit was alive in the first century AD.

This is a tremendously exciting discovery and this very early rabbit is already revealing new insights into the history of the Easter traditions we are all enjoying this week. Professor Naomi Sykes, University of Exeter

An exotic pet

Britain’s earliest rabbit doesn’t bear any butchery marks, and another analysis suggests it was kept in confinement. The inhabitants at Fishbourne Palace were known to be wealthy and kept a varied menagerie, so the rabbit could have been an exotic pet.

Colour illustration showing three rabbits in front of a Roman villa.
The rabbit may have been an exotic pet, kept by the wealthy inhabitants of Fishbourne Palace © Judith Dobie, Historic England

How the discovery was made

The four-centimetre segment of a tibia bone was found during excavations in 1964 but it remained in a box, not recognised, until 2017, when Dr Fay Worley, Zooarchaeologist at Historic England realised the bone was from a rabbit. Genetic analyses have proved Fay was right.

Academics from the University of Exeter, Universities of Oxford and Leicester, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council carried out the analyses as part of the Exploring the Easter E.g. project, together with Historic England and Sussex Archaeological Society.

View a 3D model of the bone 

Further research is ongoing that will reveal where the rabbit came from and whether it's related to modern bunnies.

Dr Fay Worley and rabbit bones with a modern hare tibia and modern rabbit tibia for comparison
Dr Fay Worley holds the rabbit tibia bone she discovered with a modern hare tibia and a modern rabbit tibia either side for comparison © Historic England

This find will change how we interpret Roman remains and highlights that new information awaits discovery in museum collections! Dr Fay Worley, Zooarchaeologist at Historic England

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