Domestic cat exhumed from 100 AD in Roman Britain

NEWS AND COMMENT: I have been slightly adventurous in the title to this article. But I think I am within acceptable tolerances! Archaeologists have been excavating at an English Heritage site in Richborough, Kent, UK. It’s the site of an amphitheatre just north of Sandwich. Historians have known about it for a long time; since 1849, but they started a new dig and of interest to me is the fact that they’ve unearthed the almost complete skeletal remains of what appears to be a domestic cat named ‘Maxipus’ after Russell Crowe’s character Maximus in the film Gladiator.

Domestic cat unearthed at a Roman amphitheatre at Richborough, Kent
Domestic cat unearthed at a Roman amphitheatre at Richborough, Kent. Photograph: Jim Holden/English Heritage.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

They don’t say that this is a domestic cat but they do say that it appears to have been “placed” rather than ‘discarded’ (The Times newspaper) on the edge of the Roman settlement. And the anatomy of this skull looks similar to that of current domestic cats, it seems to me (wrong? – please tell me). We know that Romans brought domestic cats with them when they conquered Britain. These moggies became British Shorthairs in the cat fancy and they are of course the ancestors of all moggie domestic cats in British homes today. We also know that European wildcats were in Britain before the Roman conquest in A.D. 43 and that domestic cats were brought over later. Accordingly, the skeleton could be a domesticated wildcat (at least theoretically) but I suspect it was a genuine domestic cat, one of the first in Britain. Of course, the fact that it was buried supports this hypothesis.

It is sad that today the wildcat is probably extinct in the wild in Britain. The remaining Scottish wildcats (European wildcats) are probably hybrids (wildcat x domestic cat crosses). There are vague plans to reintroduce the wildcat into Britain.

Richborough Roman settlement dig
Richborough Roman settlement dig. Photograph: Jim Holden/English Heritage.

The dig also unearthed a room in the amphitheatre where criminals and gladiators waited before they entered the arena to fight for the amusement of paying customers. The room would have been compact at 6’6″ high with only one doorway into the 5,000-seater arena. It could accommodate five people who would have been held there until they were sent out to die. Some of these people were criminals who were being executed in the arena. There is a popular belief that they died fighting wild animals but they may have died at the hands of executioners who would have come up with “various imaginative ways of killing”.

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