Findings: Winning ways of the weasel

August 30, 2002

Weasels might not seem the ideal creature to have as a pet but the Romans may have preferred them to cats, writes Steve Farrar.

Bones excavated from the city of Pompeii, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79, hint that the small carnivores were tamed by man to keep homes free of vermin.

Adrienne Powell, a doctorate student and freelance zooarchaeologist at the University of York, has found evidence that they had been kept by the residents of the doomed Roman city among a haul of animal bones recovered from a Pompeiian bar.

This material was excavated by a team from the University of Reading and the British School at Rome in the late 1990s.

Classical writers including Petronius and Palladius mention weasels in a variety of contexts, though some modern translators have chosen to interpret this to more likely mean a cat or even, in one case, a mongoose.

But while some historians believe cats would have been fairly rare in Italy at this time, no physical evidence has been uncovered to indicate that weasels were being deliberately kept as an alternative mouser.

Ms Powell found the bones of at least six weasels, including a juvenile too young to have left the nest, amid deposit from the 1st century BC to 1st century AD.

She also found a mouse bone and a duck bone that carry the tiny puncture marks characteristic of the weasel. The same deposit contained just a solitary cat tooth.

While the evidence is circumstantial, the bar was at the centre of the town and too far from open fields for the animals to have been wild.

"They had to have been tame, living in the backyard either scavenging or hunting, and must have been kept to hunt vermin," Ms Powell said.

"Whether they would have had any affectionate relationship with humans as we do with pet cats is hard to say."

The findings were revealed at the International Council for Archaeology meeting at the University of Durham last week.

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