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Shot of an archaeologist holding the leather prank mouse found in the Roman fort of Vindolanda.      Source: Vindolanda Trust

The Romans’ Playful Side Revealed By Prank Mouse in Vindolanda

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A 2,000-year-old ‘prank mouse’ has been discovered in a bag of Roman period leather offcuts in a collection of artifacts in Northumberland’s Vindolanda Museum.

The life-sized leather mouse, measuring about 12 centimeters (4.7 inches) long, was discovered in a bag of offcuts excavated in 1993 at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, just to the south of Hadrian’s Wall near Hexham, in Northumberland, England. Located on the first Roman frontier in the north, the Stanegate Road, the Roman army established Vindolanda before Hadrian commissioned his 73-mile (117-km) defensive barrier to guard the north-western frontier from invaders in 122 AD.

According to Vindolanda Charitable Trust ’s website, the cavalry barracks was demolished and completely re-built no fewer than nine times. In 1993, archaeologists excavated a bag of scrap leather offcuts from a commanding officer of a residence dating to about 105-130 AD. The life-sized leather mouse, which measures about the size of a real adult mouse, had been kept unnoticed in the Vindolanda Museum since 1993 and Barbara Birley, curator of the  Vindolanda Museum , told the Observerit’s a fabulous little piece” that might have been a child’s toy, or maybe a practical joke.

The Vindolanda fort and excavation site where the prank mouse was found. (Andrew Curtis / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Vindolanda fort and excavation site where the prank mouse was found. (Andrew Curtis / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The Leather Shadow of a Persistent Historical Pest

To put the functionality of this little leather mouse in proper historical context, we must think back to being about six-years-old and first becoming aware of practical jokes like fake blood, flies in ice-cubes and fake spiders. And if you have any problems recalling the terror a fake spider can cause, just have a quick look at this Simon Pierro YouTube clip of an elevator spider-prank, and just watch the victims explosive emotional responses.

Now, imagine a garrison of 20 Roman soldiers drinking heavily one night and someone accidentally admitted to a fear of mice, sometimes referred to as musophobia, well, this admission might well have inspired the cutting of the fake mouse, and anyone in the armed forces will be nodding in utter agreement with that last statement knowing the value of humor, and practical jokes in “squad” culture.

The prank mouse along with other leather items in the background found at Vindolanda. (Vindolanda Trust)

The prank mouse along with other leather items in the background found at Vindolanda. ( Vindolanda Trust )

If the mouse was indeed a practical joke, “it was convincing,” said Barbara Birley, and she suggested that if you were working in a dimly-lit Roman room, because it’s not a caricature like Mickey Mouse, with exaggerated ears, “you could definitely see it as a little mouse,” she said. Putting this unique discovery further into historical context, Mrs. Birley’s husband, Andrew, is director of excavations and chief executive of the  Vindolanda Trust , and he said in a Guardian article that the piece of leather represents an animal that was “a constant pest” in ancient Vindolanda.

An Ancient Artifact Inspired By Environmental Factors

Mr. Birley explained that Roman wheat granaries were often infested with mice and rats and that they fed on grains, which fell through the stone floors. This idea was proven in 2008 when the granary buildings at Vindolanda were excavated and the bones from thousands of dead mice were uncovered below the floors of the buildings. This is why Mr. Birley thinks it’s “rather wonderful,” that 2,000 years ago someone crafted a mouse from leather that had been directly inspired from the goings on in the immediate environment.

In July 2007, Current Archaeology published an article announcing that a “new cache of well-preserved Roman writing tablets” were discovered at the auxiliary fort of Vindolanda. The rare collection of around “25 fragile, postcard-sized pieces of wood” measuring a mere 2mm thick, was discarded towards the end of the 1st century AD, and it offered archaeologists fresh insights into the day to day workings of Romans living and working at the site 2,000 years ago. It was amidst a collection of rare cavalry swords, leather boots and shoes that the bag of more than “7,000 leather objects and offcuts,” were discovered, where the little leather mouse had snoozed undisturbed for almost two millennia.

Close up of the prank mouse found at the Vindolanda excavation site. (Vindolanda Trust)

Close up of the prank mouse found at the Vindolanda excavation site. ( Vindolanda Trust )

Mrs. Birley said it just goes to show that the collection of artifacts from Vindolanda “continue to reveal things that we weren’t expecting to find,” and while the research is painstakingly slow it is “thanks to the coronavirus lockdown” that curatorial staff at the Vindolanda Museum have had the time to deepen their studies into this sentinel of Roman power in their outpost of Britannia. What’s more, now archaeologists know a degree of humor was shared among the foreigners as they reshaped the entire culture of this island at the western extremes of the known world, Britannia.

Top image: Shot of an archaeologist holding the leather prank mouse found in the Roman fort of Vindolanda.      Source: Vindolanda Trust

By Ashley Cowie

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