Unwelcome Companions: Ancient Rats Reviewed

Article excerpt

The commensal rats -- notably the black rat Rattus rattus and the brown R. norvegicus -- are among mankind's most destructive and dangerous enemies, and have spread relentlessly with humans across the globe. A decade after an important fatty meeting at the Natural History Museum, London, in 1981, this noxious rodent pest is again reviewed.


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 Britain. This event proved 'particularly stimulating' (Twigg 1984: preface), and rekindled interest in the subject, especially the question of the rat's presence in Britain before the medieval period; a possibility raised by the discovery of their skeletal 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 phenomenon, an observation demonstrated two years later (in 1983) when further Roman rat bones 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 London) to collaborate in investigating their wider significance. West gathered together published and unpublished archaeological records of R. rattus in Britain, and drew up a provisional historical distribution map, while I collated archaeological records from Europe and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 (O'Connor 1988b) and from Picardie (northern France), where Vigne & Femolant (1991) found black rat as early as the 1st century AD.

As O'Connor (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 advance our knowledge is still incomplete; and this paper reviews chronology and pattern in the spread of R. rattus, identifying where information is either patchy or lacking. Among the priority areas meriting further study are:

1 The pre-Roman spread of R. rattus from southeast Asia;

2 The apparent extinction in Dark Age northern Europe of R. rattus;

3 The reintroduction into northern Europe of R. rattus c. late 9th century/early 10th century;

4 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 developing 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-Arab-Indian) economic and cultural contact reached its height (Barraclough 1989: 70). By this model, the principal 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 extensive maritime trade network operating between the Harappan and Mesopotamian civilizations as early as the 2nd millennium BC (Neyland 1992), with much commerce being handled by 'middlemen merchants from Dilmun' (modern Bahrain and Failaka located in the Persian Gulf). …