Wednesday 8 November 2017

Were there camels in Roman Britain? A brief note on the nature and context of the London camel remains

The following note looks briefly at the question of camels in Roman Britain. Recent work has demonstrated that both dromedaries (or Arabian camels) and Bactrian camels were indeed in use across much of Europe during the Roman era and into the early medieval period, and in this context an early twentieth-century record of Roman camel remains found at Greenwich Park, London, is of considerable interest.

Sites with Roman-era camel remains in Europe. Image: C. R. Green, based on a map of the Roman Empire in the early second century AD by Tataryn/Wikimedia Commons, with the empire depicted in red and its clients during the reign of Trajan in pink; click here for a larger version of this image. The distribution of finds of camel remains in Europe is based on Pigière & Henrotay 2012, Tomczyk 2016, Bartosiewicz & Dirjec 2001, Daróczi-Szabó et al 2014, Albarella et al 1993, Maenchen-Helfen 1973, Moreno-García et al 2007, Vuković-Bogdanović & Blažić 2014, and Vuković & Bogdanović 2013.

There is now a fairly substantial body of archaeological evidence showing that both dromedaries and Bactrian camels were present in modern Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and the Balkans between the first and the fifth centuries AD, with the majority of finds dating from the third century AD or after. Recent surveys by both Pigière & Henrotay and Tomczyk indicate that, where identification is possible, the evidence points to dromedaries or Arabian camels being dominant in the western half of Roman Europe whilst Bactrian camels were mainly found in the east, although the split was not absolute—for example, a near-complete skeleton of a Bactrian camel is known from a Roman urban context at Saintes, France, and dromedary remains have been recovered from Kompolt-Kistér, Hungary.

As to the contexts of these finds, camel remains have been recovered from a wide variety of sites, including military settlements, rural villas, civilian urban sites, and amphitheatres, most of which were on or close to major road routes, and it has consequently been argued that camels were being primarily used as pack animals/beasts of burden for both Roman military and civilian traffic in this era. In addition, it is possible that a few of the finds of camel remains may reflect curiosities in the collections of rich landowners, whilst a small number of sites show evidence for the butchery and consumption of camel meat, and the handful of amphitheatre finds have been sometimes considered suggestive of the use of camels in public shows, although this latter notion is open to question—certainly, an investigation into the fourth-century hybrid camel skeleton from the amphitheatre at Viminacium, Serbia, shows that this dates from after the amphitheatre had ceased to be used in that way.

A large classical fountain-spout in the form of a camel's head, preserved in the Hall of Animals in the Pio Clementino Museum, Vatican City (image: Colin/Wikimedia Commons).

With regard to the camel remains from Roman Britain, Pigière & Henrotay only offer the briefest of comments on their nature, noting simply their Roman date and that they were found in Greenwich Park, London, citing for this a 1987 publication by Shimon Applebaum. Unfortunately, this reference adds no further details in terms of what was actually found at Greenwich, but the Victoria County History of Kent (London, 1932) III, p. 116, is rather more helpful on both the finds and their context:
GREENWICH PARK.—Important remains of Roman occupation have been found in the north of Greenwich Park... They came to light accidentally in 1902, and were examined by Mr. Herbert Jones and others... [M]uch building material [was found]—roof and other tiles, hypocaust pilae, wall-plaster painted (it is said) in as many as twelve patterns, tesserae both rough red cubes of brick and finer specimens in other colours, a piece of green porphyry which may have belonged to a marble wall-lining, nails with burnt wood attached, worked and moulded blocks of oolite, parts of the drums of three diminutive columns, and some window glass. These structural remains were accompanied by numerous smaller movable objects. Several pieces of inscribed and sculptured stone provide a feature unusual on these sites...
     Besides these notable pieces, there came to light much pottery in many varieties, including one cup of Samian ware... There were also bronze fibulae, nail-cleaners, box hinges, iron nails of various sizes (2-6 in. long), key, knife, rings, hooks and the like; bone pins and a carved piece showing a woman holding a shield above her head; bottle glass, and lastly, oyster shells; and many bones of horse, sheep, oxen, deer, and teeth of dogs, rabbits and (it is stated) camels. Coins abounded to the number of about 300, and ranged from Claudius to Honorius...
     To complete the description of the site, we must add that the probable line of Watling Street crosses Greenwich Park, a little to the south...
Three particular points are worthy of note here. First, it seems clear that the camel remains in question came from a high-status site, a conclusion supported by later work here which has identified the Greenwich Park site as a probable Roman temple complex. None of the other findspots studied by Pigière & Henrotay are noted as temples, but given the wide variety of sites that have produced camel remains and their apparent use for both civilian and military transport, this isn't a major issue. Second, the site was located close to a major Roman road route and just to the south-east of the main city of Roman Britain, Londinium; needless to say, such a location fits in well with the other findspots of camel remains in Europe, many of which come from urban locales and almost all were found close by major Roman roads. Third and finally, the camel remains consisted of teeth, not bones, something confirmed by the catalogue of finds contained in A. D. Webster's contemporary book on Greenwich Park: Its History and Associations (London, 1902), p. 74. However, this is again not a major obstacle—the vast majority of finds of camel remains in Europe are, in fact, not of whole or even partial skeletons, but rather 'consist mainly of one isolated bone' (Pigière & Henrotay 2012, p. 1535). As such, the small quantity of the remains is in accord with the general find pattern in Europe, and other excavated sites have likewise only produced teeth, such as Ajdovščina, Solvenia (ancient Castra).

All told, the finds from Greenwich thus seem to fit into the general pattern of Roman-era finds of camel remains across Europe, and there consequently seems little reason not to interpret them in a similar manner, that is to say as evidence of the presence and use of Roman camels, probably primarily as pack animals/beasts of burden. Certainly, if the Romans were willing to transport elephants across the Channel, as they may well have done, then there seems little reason to think that they wouldn't have done the same with camels, particularly given that camels were apparently being fairly widely employed elsewhere in north-western Europe then.(1)

The Adoration of the Magi featuring three rather happy camels, from a fourth-century AD Roman sarcophagus at Rome (image: Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons).


1     For the sake of interest, it perhaps worth noting here that the next solid evidence for the presence of camels in Britain comes from the early twelfth century, when written documentation is first encountered for their presence in royal menageries belonging to the kings of England, Scotland and Ireland. Whether there were any in Britain earlier than this is wholly unclear, although camels were certainly present in western Europe through the early medieval period, including in Germany and Poland in the tenth century, and William the Conqueror is said to have owned lions, leopards and camels.

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