|Finds of North African Barbary ape remains from Iron Age, Roman and medieval Europe; click here for a larger version of this map. Archaeological excavations producing Barbary ape remains are shown by dark blue dots whilst the modern-day range of Barbary apes is shown in dark red (image: C. R. Green, based on a base map from Wikimedia Commons).|
Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus), commonly known as Barbary apes, are a species of Old World monkey indigenous to North Africa whose range in antiquity is thought to have extended from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and Algeria across into what is now Tunisia and western Libya, with the small European colony on the Rock of Gibraltar probably established by the eighth century AD but potentially not much earlier than this (it is not mentioned by the classical authorities who discuss the Rock). As such, the presence of Barbary ape remains in 'post-Roman' Wroxeter, Shropshire, is certainly intriguing.
The remains in question consist of a well-preserved first phalange of a Barbary ape from a Phase Y–Z context (E74) at the Romano-British city of Viroconium Cornoviorum, modern Wroxeter.(1) These phases of activity were ascribed by Philip Barker to the sixth to seventh centuries in his final excavation report on the Wroxeter baths basilica, although the date and significance of these post-Roman phases have subsequently been the subject of some scepticism and potential revision—so, for example, the reality of the vast timber-framed structure of Phase Z has been challenged, as has the archaeomagnetic dating of Phase X that placed that period firmly in the post-Roman era.(2) Nonetheless, it still seems clear that there was indeed notable activity in Wroxeter during the early post-Roman era, even if we can no longer be as certain of its scale or duration. Thus radiocarbon dates from a hearth, a dump and a surface all suggest continued activity into the late fifth and sixth centuries, and this is supported by finds of a fifth- or sixth-century memorial stone with a Latin inscription (the Cunorix stone), a bronze coin of Valentinian III (c. AD 430–35), and sherds of imported Palestinian LR4 amphorae which are arguably of fifth-century date here.(3) Needless to say, the Barbary ape remains fit well into the above context and clearly offer further evidence for long-distance contacts between Britain and the Mediterranean in the 'post-Roman' era, particularly given that it is thought significantly more likely that the animal would have arrived in good condition if it had travelled directly from North Africa via the sea rather than indirectly overland, perhaps being imported via the port of Meols on the Wirral (which has seen finds of early Byzantine coins and one or two late fifth- to mid-seventh-century St Menas pilgrim flasks from Egypt) or the River Severn (the Bristol Channel area having seen finds of 'post-Roman'-era African Red Slip Ware from North Africa as well as other Mediterranean imports).(4)
|The remains of the 'Old Work', part of the baths basilica complex at Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter); this surviving 7 metre high wall and arch is the largest piece of free-standing Roman wall in Britain (image: Nilfanion/Wikimedia Commons).|
With regard to the role that this Barbary ape might have had in fifth- or sixth-century Wroxeter, there is unfortunately no contextual evidence from Wroxeter, but it is certainly the case that other archaeological finds from Britain and Europe suggest that Barbary apes were often highly valued in Roman and Late Antique society. For example, there is currently one other Late Antique find of a Barbary ape known from western Europe, discovered in the former Roman city of Iulia Libica, modern Llívia, in north-eastern Spain. This animal died in the fifth or sixth century (AD 515 ± 85) at around five and a half years of age, and was buried with a number of offerings including decorated metallic pieces and some bronze military belts typical of the Late Roman period, something believed to be indicative of the macaque having been a military pet—perhaps associated with an officer—that may have played a symbolic role as a mascot, totem or signum within the unit as a whole.(5) In this context, it is worth noting that Roman-era finds of Barbary ape remains have likewise been found in probable military contexts from a military (legionary) necropolis at Cutry in Meurthe-et-Moselle, northern France; from the vicus associated with the second- to third-century Roman fort of Rainau-Buch in Germany; and from the Roman fort of Cataractonium (Catterick, North Yorkshire), where a presumed Roman-era fragmentary skull of a male individual aged around 3 years was discovered whilst digging a modern service trench.(6)
A number of finds of Barbary apes also come from Roman urban or domestic contexts. Of particular interest here is a later third- to early fourth-century AD necropolis at the Roman city of Lemonum, modern Poitiers, where an adult Barbary ape was apparently buried alongside its owner inside a large stone-built funerary enclosure. Needless to say, this would seem to reflect the macaque being especially valued by its owner, and in this light it is perhaps worth noting that its burial probably involved a wooden coffin and is comparable in character to a number of infant burials excavated within the necropolis.(7) Other finds of Barbary apes from urban or domestic contexts include an incomplete juvenile skeleton of a macaque from Pompeii; a skull and mandible of a young Barbary ape from Constantinople that was discovered during the excavation of the Harbour of Theodosius, Yenikapı; a late second- to early third-century AD individual found at the House with the Large Triclinium at Le Clos de la Lombarde, Narbonne, France, where it had been deposited in a well at Marcus Claudius Aestivo's rich domus along with 27 human infants and dogs; and the skeleton of a young macaque found in a second-century pit at the small Romano-British town of Durocobrivis, modern Dunstable, Bedfordshire.(8)
|An Early Byzantine mosaic of a Barbary ape from the Great Palace of Constantinople, usually dated to the sixth century AD (image: Laurom/Wikimedia Commons).|
In addition to the ten finds listed above from Roman or Late Antique archaeological contexts in Europe, there have also been a small number of Iron Age and medieval Barbary apes found too. The Iron Age is represented by only two finds, one from Titelberg, a hillfort/oppidum of the Treveri in Luxembourg, and another from Navan Fort, Northern Ireland. The latter find consists of a skull and mandible of a Barbary ape radiocarbon dated to 390–20 BC and found in a phase IIIii context of c. 250–100 BC. It was discovered within the wall-slot of one of the large central buildings of Navan Fort, something that has led to the suggestion that the macaque's remains were utilized in death as a votive offering, and its presence in Iron Age Northern Ireland has been reasonably considered evidence for a sea-trade route between northern Ireland and the western Mediterranean world at that time.(9) From the medieval period there are five archaeological finds of Barbary apes known. Three come from the UK and consist of a macaque excavated from a medieval context at Friars’ Street, London, which shows signs of having been kept in captivity; a fourteenth-century skeleton found at Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland; and a late thirteenth-century skull and clavicle from Southampton, recovered from a rubbish pit attached to a large stone house owned by Richard of Southwick, a wealthy merchant who had trading connections with Spain.(10) There are also two finds made on the Continent, namely a medieval macaque discovered in Hitzacker, Lower Saxony (Germany), and a probably late twelfth-century skull from Novgorod, north-western Russia. The latter is the most northerly archaeological find of Barbary ape remains known from Europe and comes from Rurikovo Gorodische, a princely residence in that period.(11)
Of course, there are also a number of textual and artistic references to the keeping of Barbary apes as pets and performers in Roman and medieval Europe which can supplement the archaeozoological record to a significant degree.(12) Nonetheless, the archaeological evidence summarized above is of interest in itself. First, it is clear that Barbary apes like that discovered in fifth- or sixth-century Wroxeter are a very rare archaeological find from ancient and medieval Europe, and even though Roman and Late Antique discoveries are somewhat more common than medieval, it is worth noting that they are still significantly outnumbered by, for example, finds of camel remains across Europe. Second, at least some of the finds clearly come from high-status sites or were found in situations suggestive of the macaques being used as exotic companion animals, something that both confirms the written evidence and offers a potential context for the Wroxeter find, particularly given the interpretation of that site as a post-Roman elite centre. Third, it is interesting to note that most of the finds come from areas reasonably close to the coast or major riverine routes, again contrasting markedly with the distribution of Roman and Late Antique camel finds and thus potentially adding weight to the suggestion that pre-modern Barbary apes as exotica were primarily transported directly from the southern Mediterranean via the sea and rivers, rather than indirectly overland across Europe.(13) And fourth and finally, it can be observed that 7 of the 17 Barbary apes so far identified in the medieval and earlier European archaeological record (c. 41% of the total) were actually found in Britain or Ireland—whilst one might be tempted to suggest that an explanation may lie in the intensity of British archaeological work and its relative accessibility, this may well not be the whole story, particularly given that the pattern doesn't necessarily seem to be replicated with other long-distance exotica.(14)
|A Barbary ape looking at itself in a mirror, from the fifthteenth-century Isabella Breviary, BL Additional 18851, f. 270r, made in the Southern Netherlands; for some more examples of medieval illuminations of monkeys, see this blog from the British Library (image: British Library).|
1. A. J. Hammon, Late Romano-British – Early Medieval Socio-Economic and Cultural Change: Analysis of the Mammal and Bird Bone Assemblages from the Roman city of Viroconium Cornoviorum, Shropshire (University of Sheffield PhD Thesis, 2005), vol. 1, pp. 152–3; A. Hammon, 'Understanding the Romano-British–Early Medieval transition: a zooarchaeological perspective from Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum)', Britannia, 42 (2011), 275–305 at pp. 290, 298; P. Barker et al, The Baths Basilica Wroxeter: Excavations 1966–90 (London, 1997), p. 358.
2. P. Barker et al, The Baths Basilica Wroxeter: Excavations 1966–90 (London, 1997); M. Fulford, 'Wroxeter: legionary fortress, baths, and the "great rebuilding" of c. AD 450–550'. Journal of Roman Archaeology, 15 (2002), 639–45; A. Lane, 'Wroxeter and the end of Roman Britain', Antiquity, 88 (2014), 501–515. Note, Lane's argument that Barker's interpretation of Wroxeter as a continuing Roman town stands alone and without parallel in post-Roman Britain fails to take into account the evidence from Lincoln, where continued use of the Roman forum area into the sixth-century AD is now well-established, see especially Green, Britons and Anglo-Saxons: Lincolnshire AD 400–650 (Lincoln, 2012), pp. 65–9, 82–3, and Green, 'The British kingdom of Lindsey', Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 56 (2008), 1–43 at pp. 18–23, and the summary discussions in Green, 'The fifth-to sixth-century British church in the forum at Lincoln: a brief discussion', blog post, 11 December 2017, online at http://www.caitlingreen.org/2017/12/fifth-to-sixth-century-british-church-lincoln.html, and Green, 'Romano-British pottery in the fifth- to sixth-century Lincoln region', blog post, 12 June 2016, online at http://www.caitlingreen.org/2016/06/romano-british-pottery-fifth-century-lincoln.html.
3. On the radiocarbon dates still implying post-Roman activity, see A. Lane, 'Wroxeter and the end of Roman Britain', Antiquity, 88 (2014), 501–515 at pp. 508, 513; he also mentions the coin and inscription as still indicative of post-Roman activity (p. 511), but doesn't refer to the amphorae sherds. On Palestinian ('Gaza') LR4 amphorae in Britain and their date, see especially K. Dark, 'Western Britain in Late Antiquity', in F. K. Haarer et al (eds.), AD 410: The History and Archaeology of Late and Post-Roman Britain (London, 2014), pp. 23–35, and also M. Duggan, 'Ceramic imports to Britain and the Atlantic Seaboard in the fifth century and beyond', Internet Archaeology, 41 (2016), online at https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.41.3 on recent finds of LR4 at Bantham, Devon, and on the Continent; see the University of Southampton's Roman Amphora: Digital Resource (ADS 2005) for further details of LR4 amphorae, which are 'common in major western ports from c. AD 400 to early seventh century' and are usually thought to have been primarily, but not exclusively, used for transporting the famous wines of Gaza in Late Antiquity. For the Wroxeter amphorae sherds, see P. Barker et al, The Baths Basilica Wroxeter: Excavations 1966–90 (London, 1997), pp. 120, 237; J. A. Riley, 'The coarse pottery from Berenice', in J. Lloyd (ed.), Excavations at Sidi Khrebish, Benghazi (Berenice) II, supplement to Libya Antiqua, 5 (1979), 91–465 at p. 221; A. Hammon, 'Understanding the Romano-British–Early Medieval transition: a zooarchaeological perspective from Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum)', Britannia, 42 (2011), 275–305 at p. 293. It is perhaps worth noting that another sherd of a Palestinian amphora has recently been recovered from the Walbrook area of the Thames foreshore at London, adding to that known from the Billingsgate bath house at London, and has been assigned a fifth-century date on the PAS: LON-BB27D6.
4. A. J. Hammon, Late Romano-British – Early Medieval Socio-Economic and Cultural Change: Analysis of the Mammal and Bird Bone Assemblages from the Roman city of Viroconium Cornoviorum, Shropshire (University of Sheffield PhD Thesis, 2005), vol. 1, pp. 152–3, 162–3, 172; S. Bangert, 'Menas ampullae: a case study of long-distance contacts', in A. Harris (ed.), Incipient Globalization? Long-Distance Contacts in the Sixth Century (Oxford, 2007), pp. 27–33.
5. O. Olesti et al, 'Controlling the Pyrenees: a macaque's burial from Late Antique Iulia Libica (Llívia, La Cerdanya, Spain)', in A. Sarantis & N. Christie (eds.), War and Warfare in Late Antiquity: Current Perspectives (Leiden 2013), pp. 703–31.
6. F. Gerber & A. Baudry-Dautry, 'La mode de l’animal exotique dans la haute société gallo-romaine. Sépulture d’un singe dans la nécropole de la rue des Caillons à Poitiers', Archéopages, 35 (2012), 42–7; O. Olesti et al, 'Controlling the Pyrenees: a macaque's burial from Late Antique Iulia Libica (Llívia, La Cerdanya, Spain)', in A. Sarantis & N. Christie (eds.), War and Warfare in Late Antiquity: Current Perspectives (Leiden 2013), pp. 703–31 at p. 714; G. Hodgson, 'A Barbary ape from the 1958–9 bypass excavations (Site 433)', in P. R. Wilson (ed.), Cataractonium: Roman Catterick and its Hinterland. Excavations and Research, 1958-1997: Volume II (York, 2002), p. 415; A. J. Hammon, Late Romano-British – Early Medieval Socio-Economic and Cultural Change: Analysis of the Mammal and Bird Bone Assemblages from the Roman city of Viroconium Cornoviorum, Shropshire (University of Sheffield PhD Thesis, 2005), vol. 1, p. 152.
7. F. Gerber & A. Baudry-Dautry, 'La mode de l’animal exotique dans la haute société gallo-romaine. Sépulture d’un singe dans la nécropole de la rue des Caillons à Poitiers', Archéopages, 35 (2012), 42–7.
8. J. F. Bailey et al, 'Monkey business in Pompeii—unique find of a juvenile Barbary macaque skeleton in Pompeii identified using osteology and ancient DNA techniques', Molecular Biology and Evolution, 16 (1999), 1410–14; V. Onar et al, 'A bridge from Byzantium to modern day Istanbul: an overview of animal skeleton remains found during Metro and Marmaray excavations', Journal of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Istanbul University, 39 (2013), 1–8 at p. 8; F. Gerber & A. Baudry-Dautry, 'La mode de l’animal exotique dans la haute société gallo-romaine. Sépulture d’un singe dans la nécropole de la rue des Caillons à Poitiers', Archéopages, 35 (2012), 42–7; and J. Schneider, 'The Manshead Archaeological Society 1951–1991', Bedfordshire Archaeology, 20 (1992), 96–104 at p. 102.
9. See, for example, I. Armit, Headhunting and the Body in Iron Age Europe (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 72–3; D. M. Waterman & C. J. Lynn (eds.), Excavations at Navan Fort 1961-71, County Armagh (Belfast, 1997), pp. 120–4; K. A. Costa, 'Marketing archaeological heritage sites in Ireland', in Y. M. Rowan and U. Baram (eds.), Marketing Heritage: Archaeology and the Consumption of the Past (Walnut Creek, 2004), pp. 69–92 at p. 73.
10. A. Pipe, ‘A note on exotic animals from medieval and post-medieval London’, Anthropozoologica, 16 (1992), 189–91 at p. 190; A. Hamlin and C. Lynn (eds.), Pieces of the Past (Belfast, 1988), pp. 64–5; C. Platt & R. Coleman-Smith (eds.), Excavations in Medieval Southampton 1953–1969 (Leicester, 1975), vol. 1, pp. 32, 334; M. Brisbane & E. Hambleton, 'A monkey's tale: the skull of a macaque found at Ryurik Gorodische during excavations in 2003', Medieval Archaeology, 51 (2007), 185–91 at pp. 189–90.
11. D. M. Waterman & C. J. Lynn (eds.), Excavations at Navan Fort 1961-71, County Armagh (Belfast, 1997), pp. 120–4; M. Brisbane et al, 'An African monkey at the court of Novgorod princes', in The Origins of the Russian State (St Petersburg, 2007), pp. 74–81; M. Brisbane & E. Hambleton, 'A monkey's tale: the skull of a macaque found at Ryurik Gorodische during excavations in 2003', Medieval Archaeology, 51 (2007), 185–91.
12. See J. M. C. Toynbee, Animals in Roman Life and Art (London, 1973), pp. 56–60, for a survey of references to monkeys in classical literature and art, and K. Walker-Meikle, Medieval Pets (Woodbridge, 2012), pp. 13–4, and M. Brisbane & E. Hambleton, 'A monkey's tale: the skull of a macaque found at Ryurik Gorodische during excavations in 2003', Medieval Archaeology, 51 (2007), 185–91 at p. 190, for medieval documentary references. See also Widukind in the tenth century for a reference to 'monkeys' at the court of Otto I of Germany: H. Mayr-Harting, 'The church of Magdeburg: its trade and its town in the tenth and early eleventh centuries', in D. Abulafia et al (eds.), Church and City, 1000–1500: Essays in Honour of Christopher Brooke (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 129–50 at p. 144. Charlemagne is likewise suggested to have kept monkeys in the late eighth century, and the menagerie of animals that accompanied Thomas Becket's mission to France in 1158 included apes: W. B. Clark, A Medieval Book of Beasts: The Second-family Bestiary (Woodbridge, 2006), pp. 17–18.
13. As noted above: A. J. Hammon, Late Romano-British – Early Medieval Socio-Economic and Cultural Change: Analysis of the Mammal and Bird Bone Assemblages from the Roman city of Viroconium Cornoviorum, Shropshire (University of Sheffield PhD Thesis, 2005), vol. 1, pp. 152–3, 172, and D. M. Waterman & C. J. Lynn (eds.), Excavations at Navan Fort 1961-71, County Armagh (Belfast, 1997), p. 123.
14. The obvious comparison is again with camel remains—c. 50 sites in Europe have produced Roman-era camel remains, but only one of these is in Britain: C. R. Green, 'Were there camels in Roman Britain? A brief note on the nature and context of the London camel remains', blog post, 8 November 2017, online at http://www.caitlingreen.org/2017/11/were-there-camels-in-roman-britain.html. However, we might likewise note the lack of medieval parrot remains or, indeed, the almost total lack of Early Modern–Modern guinea pig remains from Britain, despite textual evidence for the presence of these species here then; see, for example, T. O'Connor, 'Animals in urban life in Medieval to Early Modern England', in U. Albarella et al (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Zooarchaeology (Oxford, 2017), pp. 214–29 at p. 222. Note also, perhaps, the presence of leopard and ostrich remains at Rome versus their absence from the Roman-era zooarchaeological record in Britain: M. MacKinnon, 'Supplying exotic animals for the Roman amphitheatre games: new reconstructions combining archaeological, ancient textual, historical and ethnographic data', Mouseion: Journal of the Classical Association of Canada, 6 (2006), 137–161 at pp. 154–5.
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