A Camel at Greenwich? Zooarchaeology and Negative Evidence for Camels in Roman Britain

Roman mound n Greenwich Park
Mound on which Roman remains were found in Greenwich Park. Photo by Sturdee. Source: Webster 1902.

T. Cregg Madrigal
©2018

Abstract

Reviews of the archaeological record of camels in Europe include one reported occurrence from a Roman site in Greenwich Park, England. Examination of the site reports and the surviving bones from the Greenwich Park site indicates that it is unlikely that camel remains were ever found there, and therefore there is no existing osteological evidence for camels in Roman-Britain.

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Did the Romans bring camels to Great Britain?

Neither the one-hump dromedary (Camelus dromedarius) nor the two-hump Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) is native to Europe, but both species of camel were used by the Romans. Scattered remains of both species of camel, as well as hybrids of the two, have been reported in Roman-era archaeological sites in Europe, including a single site in Great Britain, at Greenwich Park near London (Applebaum 1987:514; Bond 2017; Green 2017; Pigière and Henrotay 2012; Webster 1902).

Bactrian Camel. Source: J. Patrick Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Other finds of one or a few isolated camel bones have been reported from Roman sites in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, Serbia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Russia (Albarella et al. 1993; De Grossi Mazzorin 2006; Muñiz et al. 1995; Pigière and Henrotay 2012; Tomczyk 2016), and a partially complete skeleton was found at both Saintes in France and Viminacium in Serbia (Pigière and Henrotay 2012; Tomczyk 2016; Vuković and Bogdanović 2013).
While most of the other camel finds in continental Europe are based on relatively recent analyses of actual osteological material, the Greenwich Park record is based on a report dating back to the very early twentieth century (Webster 1902). A review of the published reports and an examination of the surviving bones from this site cast doubt on the presence of camel at Greenwich Park.

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1970s London Archaeologist Culture

Archaeologists on a tea break in London, 1974. Source: Hobley’s Heroes.

Hobley’s Heroes is an online archive that shows something of life as an archaeologist digging in London in the 1970s and 1980s, including dig site photos and an fanzine-like comic/workplace newsletter. Brian Hobley, Chief Urban Archaeologist, was their boss. It’s a fascinating repository that includes some far out field fashion and a glossary of the digger’s argot (“If in doubt, rip it out” was in use at least as early as 1974).

Hobley’s Heroes, Issue 1. 1975. Source: Hobley’s Heroes

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