The acquisition of domestic equids in Roman Britain - the identification of domestic equids and case study with isotopic analyses

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Domestic equids, namely, horses (Equus caballus), donkeys (Equus asinus), and their hybrid offspring, mules (Equus caballus x Equus asinus), played an essential role in the Roman world. As pack animals, they served in both public and private sectors in the Roman daily life. According to written sources, mules in particular were used predominantly as pack animals by the military and enabled the transport of troops, the transport of supplies, and large weaponry to every corner of the empire. The production of mules requires the presence of both male donkey and female horse, and thus mule breeding in northern Europe would necessitate the importation of donkeys to regions outside of their natural distribution and/or the import of mules from elsewhere. The importation and export of domestic equids has indeed been described in historical sources but not recognised in the zooarchaeological record.

As a result, the significant predominance of horses over donkeys and mules in Roman Britain is not currently well understood. This is mainly due to the issue of species identification. The thesis aims to refine the existing methods and develop new techniques to more accurately distinguish between different domestic equid species in an attempt to obtain, not only the representative frequency of different domestic equid species in selected Romano-British sites, but also to observe different isotopic values (oxygen, carbon, and strontium) of selected specimens in order to discuss their localness. The results suggest that, while both donkeys and mules do exist in Roman Britain, the scarce presence of donkeys and the foreign isotopic signature of possible mules imply that these two species were not systematically introduced into Roman Britain.

This study shows the potential of the use of species frequency and isotopic analyses for examining the procurement strategies of domestic equids in Roman Britain.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherUniversity of Southampton
Publication statusPublished - 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Archaeology

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