Remains of Chihuahua-Sized Dog Unearthed at Roman Britain Villa

The tiny pup was likely a beloved pet, not an animal bred for hunting or herding

Drawing of the Dog
An illustration of the small dog found at a Roman villa in Oxfordshire, England DigVentures / Earth Trust

Archaeologists excavating a Roman villa in England have discovered the remains of a toy-sized dog, suggesting ancient Britons kept small canines as pets as early as 1,800 years ago. Measuring just 7.8 inches tall from paw to shoulder, the animal is one of the smallest Roman-era dogs ever discovered in the United Kingdom.

A team from the excavation company DigVentures found the remains near the Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire. Known locally as “the Clumps,” the site is owned and cared for by environmental charity Earth Trust.

Zooarchaeologists who examined the canine’s bones determined the dog was likely female, with a dachshund’s bowlegged stature. It was the size of a chihuahua, differentiating its probable role in Roman Britain from other dogs of the era.

“The fact that this dog was so small and had bowed legs suggests that she probably wasn’t bred for hunting,” say zooarchaeologists Hannah Russ and Sarah Everett in a statement. “This, along with the fact that she might have even been buried with her owner, makes it far more likely that she was kept as a house dog, lap dog or pet.”

Outline of the Roman villa, with the Wittenham Clumps in the background
Outline of the Roman villa's foundations, with the Wittenham Clumps in the background DigVentures / Earth Trust

Researchers unearthed the remains near a large Roman villa they’ve been excavating at the Clumps. The home was likely occupied between the third and fourth centuries, when Britain was part of the Roman Empire. (This period spanned Emperor Claudius’ invasion of Britain in 43 C.E. to the early fifth century, when the Romans retreated from the region.)

The pint-sized pup is one of 15 small- to medium-sized dogs discovered at the villa. “This site provides a snapshot of domestic life in Roman Britain,” says DigVentures’ Maiya Pina-Dacier in the statement, adding that the house’s wealthy occupants “ran a farm with an assortment of working animals, including hunting or herding dogs—as well as this tiny canine.”

Prior to the Roman occupation of Britain, “you don’t find any small dogs” on the island, Pina-Dacier tells the London Times’ Adam Vaughan. “You find medium and large-sized working ones, probably for hunting and guarding.” These working canines were later crossbred and exported across the Roman Empire.

It was only during Britain’s Roman era that other types of pooches arrived in the region. Miniature or toy versions of larger dogs, as well as “dwarf dogs” born with chondrodysplasia, a phenotype that results in short, bowed legs, proved popular as animal companions, much like they did in the rest of the empire. Most small Roman dogs found in the U.K. measure 8.7 to 14.6 inches tall, according to the statement.

Dog Bone Comparison
The forelimb of the small dog found at the villa (bottom) next to the forelimb of a modern greyhound (top) DigVentures / Earth Trust

Breeding tiny dogs as pets “seems to be a Roman phenomenon that I suspect ties in with conspicuous consumption by the elite and other attempts at wealth and showiness,” Michael MacKinnon, an archaeologist at the University of Winnipeg in Canada, told Archaeology magazine’s Jarrett A. Lobell and Eric Powell in 2010.

Aside from the dogs, researchers excavating the villa found the remains of practical farming animals like chickens, geese, pigs, cattle and horses, as well as ravens and crows, “which may have been used in ritual or ceremonial activities rather than for food,” according to the statement. They also unearthed domestic items like cooking utensils, jars, jewelry, leather-working tools, combs and Roman hobnails (tacks used in the soles of boots). Artifacts recovered during the dig, including the chihuahua-sized pup’s remains, will be displayed at an Earth Trust exhibition in August as part of the Clumps Go Ancient archaeology festival.

“What’s so charming is that, when we think about the Romans, we’re always given stories of the military and how brutal they were,” Pina-Dacier tells the Telegraph’s Dalya Alberge. “But here’s a villa where you can see a family was living and what their family life was like. They’ve got their tiny dog, which they would have loved just as we all love our pets today.”

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