Archaeologists at DigVentures discover remains of tiny Roman ‘lap dog’ in Oxfordshire

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
January 31, 2024

Archaeologists at DigVentures discover remains of tiny Roman ‘lap dog’ in Oxfordshire | DigVentures

A sketch of what archaeologists believe the dog may have looked like

An archaeological dig in Oxfordshire, UK, has uncovered the 1,800 year-old remains of a tiny Roman dog.

At just 20 cm (7.8 inches) tall at the shoulder, researchers say that the ancient pooch is one of the five smallest Roman dogs ever discovered in the UK, and that its unusually small size means it is likely to have been a much-loved pet.

The little dog, which is thought to have been female with bowed legs, would probably have had a similar stature to a dachshund, but been closer in size to a chihuahua.

The animal’s remains were unearthed during an archaeological dig at the headquarters of environmental charity Earth Trust in Oxfordshire by a team of archaeologists from DigVentures, and later identified by zooarchaeologists examining the bones in the lab.

The excavation took place downslope from one of South Oxfordshire’s most iconic landmarks – Wittenham Clumps. Affectionately known locally as ‘The Clumps’, the site is owned and managed by Earth Trust, and features the ancient hillfort Castle Hill, which is registered as a scheduled ancient monument overlooking the River Thames, approximately 15 miles from Oxford and 50 miles from London. Much-loved by modern day dog owners and walkers near and far, it is the most highly visited free to access greenspace in the region.

Archaeologists at DigVentures discover remains of tiny Roman ‘lap dog’ in Oxfordshire | DigVentures

Wittenham Clumps

During the excavations, archaeologists discovered a large Roman villa, as well as the earlier remains of an earlier Iron Age settlement.

The animal’s remains were found within one of the 42 Roman burials associated with the villa, but it’s unclear whether the dog was buried with its owner or buried separately, say the researchers.

In total, the remains of at least 15 small-medium sized dogs (including the tiny lapdog) were recovered from the Roman villa, which was occupied for around 150 years between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

Archaeologists at DigVentures discover remains of tiny Roman ‘lap dog’ in Oxfordshire | DigVentures

The footprint of the Roman villa, as seen during excavations

Among many other discoveries at the villa, archaeologists found domestic items such as cooking utensils including a ladle, colander or strainer, cleaver, and storage jars, as well as personal items like brooches, bracelet, a ring, leather-working tools, hair combs, medical spatula, and even the hobnails from a pair of Roman shoes.

“This site provides a snapshot of domestic life in Roman Britain; it’s like peering into someone’s home. The villa would have been occupied by a relatively wealthy Roman family, who ran a farm with an assortment of working animals, including hunting or herding dogs – as well as this tiny canine” said Maiya Pina-Dacier from DigVentures.

Archaeologists found that the villa’s residents were also keeping chickens, geese, pigs, cattle, sheep or goats, and horses, donkeys or mules for food and farming. But not all animals were kept for practical purposes; several ravens and crows were also discovered which may have been used in ritual or ceremonial activities rather than for food. In the Iron Age part of the site, the team also discovered the remains of a decapitated dog, similar to a greyhound, buried in a pit along with a cow skull.

While most of us probably think of small dogs as a modern trend associated with a certain kind of luxury lifestyle, discoveries like this make it clear that the companionship of small dogs has been enjoyed in Britain for at least 1,800 years.

The presence of small dogs in Britain first appears with the arrival of the Romans. Until then, archaeologists typically only find medium-large sized dogs, which are generally thought to have been kept by Iron Age for practical purposes like hunting, herding, killed for fur, or sometimes sacrificed. But once the Romans arrive, smaller dogs become increasingly popular.

Once the Romans arrive, archaeologists begin to see at least two types of small dog in Britain, including miniature or toy dogs, which are the same shape as larger dogs but smaller; and dwarf dogs, arising when a puppy is born with chondrodysplasia, which results in short and bowed legs, and are then bred to produce bowed-legged dwarf breeds, like the modern dachshund.

Archaeologists at DigVentures discover remains of tiny Roman ‘lap dog’ in Oxfordshire | DigVentures

The forelimb of the tiny Roman dog (bottom) compared to a modern greyhound forelimb (top)

“While it’s possible that this dog was used for hunting, we know that Romans in other parts of the empire had begun to breed and keep small dogs as pets. In the UK, most of the small dogs we find measure between 22 – 37 cm in shoulder height, making this individual particularly small” said Hannah Russ and Sarah Everett, the zooarchaeologists who analysed the animal remains.

“The fact that this dog was so small and had bowed legs suggests that she probably wasn’t bred for hunting. 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” they said.