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Ancient Leather ‘Mouse’ Highlights the Romans’ Sense of Humor

The nearly 2,000-year-old scrap of leather, found at Vindolanda in northern England, may have been a toy or a practical joke

Found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, this piece of leather was cut into the shape of a mouse. (The Vindolanda Trust)
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Researchers at the Roman fort of Vindolanda in northern England recently discovered a mouse-shaped strip of leather while sorting through previously excavated materials, reports Dalya Alberge for the Guardian.

The find, which dates to between 105 and 130 A.D., is thought to have been a toy or a practical joke, according to a statement from the Vindolanda Museum.

Measuring around five inches long and one inch wide, the swatch of leather boasts ears, four legs and a long tail, as well as scratches along its body perhaps meant to simulate fur.

“It’s a fabulous little piece. We weren’t expecting to find something like that,” curator Barbara Birley tells the Guardian. “ … If you were working in a dark Roman room, because they didn’t have a huge amount of indoor lighting, you could definitely see it as a little mouse, especially because it’s not [like] Mickey Mouse with big ears. It looks very realistic.”

Vindolanda sits one mile south of Hadrian’s Wall, a 73-mile stone barrier constructed around 122 A.D. to mark the edge of the Roman Empire and defend against incursions by the unconquered tribes of Scotland, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

The fort itself predates Hadrian’s Wall. Established as a permanent outpost by the late 80s A.D., Vindolanda was a classic “turf and timber” example of the Romans’ playing-card shaped military complexes, wrote Mike Ibeji for BBC History in 2012. The fort acted as an important base when the wall was under construction, keeping the project supplied with materials and labor.

Between its creation and the end of the Roman occupation of Britain in the early fifth century, Vindolanda was demolished and rebuilt nine times, according to the museum. After Rome’s exit, the site remained occupied for some 400 years, but by the ninth century, it had fallen into disuse.

To date, excavations have produced an archaeological bonanza of military equipment, personal effects, and—perhaps most significantly—wooden writing tablets detailing daily life at the fort.

Archaeologists are still sorting through the array of artifacts discovered at the site.

“[Researching] the collection is an ongoing process,” the museum notes in the statement. “[I]t can take years after the excavation for every scrap and offcut to be examined.”

With the fort and other British heritage sites closed due to COVID-19, staff have had ample time to revisit previously excavated objects.

The leather mouse dates to the second century A.D. (The Vindolanda Trust)

In this case, the leather mouse emerged from a bag of scrap leather first discovered during a 1993 dig at the residence of a commanding officer. The strata of the find dates it to the second century, when the first Tungrains (inhabitants of what is now Belgium) were stationed at the fort.

Delicate artifacts like the leather mouse and the wood writing tablets are rare, as these materials are prone to rapid rot and degradation. At Vindolanda, such objects were sheltered from the ravages of time by a layer of oxygen-free soil created when heavy clay and concrete were laid down during construction, reported Alberge for the Guardian in a 2017 story on past finds at the fort.

Archaeologist Andrew Birley tells the Guardian that mice were common pests in and around Vindolanda. When staff excavated the fort’s graneries in 2008, they unearthed the skeletons of thousands of dead mice that had likely survived on fallen ears of grain.

“It is perhaps therefore rather wonderful that someone 2,000 years ago made a toy mouse from leather,” says Birley, “crafting something to play with from their immediate environment.”

The museum says the leather mouse will go on permanent display once pandemic restrictions are lifted.

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