The gallery talk for Manchester Museum Visitor Services Assistants earlier today seems to have passed off successfully. It is hard not to register an impact when your talking point is second only to panda cubs in the cuteness stakes. This being an archaeology gallery tour I hasten to say that we weren’t looking at any live animals only their archaeological remains. They came from a particular context from excavations on a Roman site in the centre of Manchester.
The mouse bones are incredibly small but the late Derek Yaldon identified them as those of the Yellow-necked mouse (Apodemus flavicollis). It transpires that this mouse has an unusual distribution in south-east England and in the Severn valley northwards into Shropshire. Zoologists have argued that this distribution relates to the presence of deciduous woodland. The Yellow-necked mouse is associated with this environment even more than the Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus). So we appear to have a good indication from these tiny bones that lots of trees were growing in and around Manchester during Roman times. There is a record for Salford Hundred (which included Manchester) in the Domesday Survey of 1086 to say that woodland extended 9.5 leagues by 5 leagues (about 23 km x 12 km) so there was a good habitat for the Yellow-necked mouse into the Middle Ages in Manchester.
The reason why Manchester Museum has these bones is somewhat upsetting and any small children or those of a sensitive nature should look away now. The mouse bones came from the sediment in the bottom of a Roman amphora that was found during Prof. Barri Jones’ excavations in Manchester. The neck and handles of the amphora or storage vessel had been broken off and it’s been suggested that this was done deliberately to make it easier to bury the amphora in the ground, where it served as a horribly effective mouse trap. Once the poor mice fell in they couldn’t climb back out because the sides of the vessel curved inwards at the top. The mice drowned in water that collected in the bottom of the amphora and their bones were in the silt when the archaeologists excavated some 2000 years later.
The Roman army must have had a lot of experience of dealing with pests of various kinds because the food stuffs needed to feed the soldiers was stored in the capacious granaries that are a feature of Roman fort sites. In my VSA presentation we discussed the provision of cat flaps and even owl chutes to enable predators to enter granaries and keep down the mouse population. Babak asked if poisoned bait was used and referred to Chaldean rodent control measures. I’m not aware that the Romans used poisons but perhaps someone out there can enlighten us.
Despite their ruthlessness in this regard the Romans seem to have liked mice. There is a famous line in Plautus: ‘A mouse never entrusts its life to only one hole’ – for which quotation I am endebted to an article in The Telegraph by Victoria Lambert about celebrity pieds-a-terre, featuring a photo of actress Stephanie Beecham. If the Romans didn’t like the creatures, why have bronze figurines of mice nibbling food in a rather endearing way, or show them on those wonderful Roman mosaics depicting waste food on the floor? Sadly we don’t have a bronze mouse in Manchester Museum’s collection but I saw a fine example in a private metal-detected collection years ago in East Yorkshire.
We do however, have a lamp with an image of a mouse as decoration (below). It is a charming representation of a mouse sipping olive oil from the hole in the top of a lamp. Unfortunately it’s slightly damaged but the curl on the left on the photo below is the handle of the lamp, on which the mouse is sitting to get at the olive oil.
In an email one of our Visitor Services Assistants, Olga, had said she was really looking forward to this morning’s talk because she keeps Degu, small furry rodents from Chile, as pets. I somehow think it was perhaps just as well she didn’t come because she might have found it upsetting. By the time I’d finished speaking there were tears in the eyes of more than a few people in the group. If I give this talk in future I must remember to take along a box of tissues…
If you are of a sensitive disposition and can’t bear to attend the talk about mice in Roman Manchester you can find out more by reading:-
D.W.Yalden (1984?) ‘The Yellow-necked mouse, Apodemus flavicollis, in Roman Manchester’, Notes from the Mammal Society – No.48, pp.285-8.
This is a copy of the writer’s section which was published in S.Bryant, M. Morris & J.S.F.Walker (1986) Roman Manchester A Frontier Settlement The Archaeology of Greater Manchester, pp.81-2.
Readers may care to know that the same writer published a note on ‘Yellow-necked mice in archaeological contexts’ in Bulletin of the Peakland Archaeological Society (vol.33 for 1983, pp.24-9).
And see Greg Morton’s guest blog about Roman mice