Tracking Animals Using Strontium Isotopes in Teeth: The Role of Fallow Deer (Dama Dama) in Roman Britain

By Sykes, Naomi J.; White, Judith et al. | Antiquity, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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Tracking Animals Using Strontium Isotopes in Teeth: The Role of Fallow Deer (Dama Dama) in Roman Britain


Sykes, Naomi J., White, Judith, Hayes, Tina E., Palmer, Martin R., Antiquity


Introduction

Non-native animals are abundant in Britain, Scotland alone having over 150 species of 'alien fauna'--in other words, creatures introduced since the last Ice Age (Welch et al. 2001). Research into the establishment of these animals has traditionally been the domain of zoologists, conservation biologists, and natural historians, interested in the timing and ecological impact of their arrival (for instance Rackham 1986; Lever 1979). More recently, however, archaeologists have begun to recognise that the ancient biogeography of certain species can inform on patterns of human migration and trade (Armitage 1994; Gardeisen 2002; Mondini et al. 2004). To this end, several naturalized animals have been the subject of research projects, examining the timing and reasons for their human-assisted spread. For example, DNA studies have yielded important information concerning the origin and distribution of the Orkney vole, Microtus arvalis (Haynes et al. 2004). For the rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), a combination of DNA and biometrical work has proved equally informative (Callou 2003). Ashby (2004) outlined several other approaches that might be adopted to reconstruct patterns of human-animal movement but one method was notably absent from his discussion--isotopic analysis.

Geochemical provenancing is now a central research tool in human osteoarchaeology, being employed to provide direct evidence for human migration (for instance Bentley et al. 2003). The zooarchaeological community has not embraced isotopic studies to the same extent, an oversight that it is hoped this paper goes a small way to redress. Here, new evidence from strontium isotope analysis is presented, clarifying the circumstances surrounding the introduction of Britain's fallow deer, Dama dama (Figure 1). It is argued that this species, which became extinct across northern Europe during the Devensian period (70-10 ka years BP), was first re-introduced to Britain whilst it was under Roman occupation. Beyond issues of natural history and human movement, this paper seeks to answer broader archaeological questions. By marrying the scientific evidence with discussion from social anthropology, the significance of fallow deer and their impact on the cultural landscape of Roman Britain are also considered.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Fallow deer in Britain and northern Europe

The 'received wisdom' is that fallow deer (like other non-native species) were established by invading peoples--the Romans and Normans being the most frequently suggested (for example, Whitehead 1972; Chapman & Chapman 1975; Lever 1979). A recent review of the evidence (Sykes 2004) concluded that modern fallow deer descend from animals introduced to Britain during the Norman period; however, the presence of Dama bones on a small number of Romano-British sites has supported the theory that the Romans also established breeding populations.

The case for a Roman introduction has never been strong, due largely to the ambiguity of both the historical and the archaeological evidence (Yalden 1999; Sykes 2004). For instance, of the large number of Romano-British sites excavated to date, few have yielded fallow deer remains (Figure 2). Furthermore, many of the purported examples are of dubious date or identification: the specimens from Redlands Farm (Davis 1997), Wraysbury (Coy 1989) and Cowdery's Down (Maltby 1983:191), are all suspected of being intrusive, whilst those from Wroxeter (Meddens 2000), Vindolanda (Hodgson 1976), Carlisle (Stallibrass 1992) and Portchester Castle (Grant 1975; Sykes 2004) are insecure classifications. Where identifications have been made with certainty, the specimens have tended to be either shed antler (O'Neil 1945; Grant 1978; Baker 1998; Bendrey 2003; for Iron Age examples see Sykes 2004) or foot bones (Bendrey pers. comm.).

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

A similar situation exists across the rest of northern Europe, where fallow deer remains are equally scarce: none have been recovered from Belgium (Ervynck et al.

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