Roman leather toy mouse found in Vindolanda scrap bag

Curators at the Vindolanda Museum have discovered a Roman leather mouse in a bag full of scraps and off cuts. The flat piece of leather cut in the shape of a mouse dates to the early 2nd century. It is an angular, geometric outline and rather fat-tailed, reminiscent more of an Escher lizard than a mouse at first glance, but upon closer inspection there are dashes indicating hairs on the body and down the tail.

There are more than 7,000 leather objects in the museum’s collection, preserved in the anaerobic soil of the ancient fort site. Some of the Roman leather pieces now on display at the Vindolanda Museum are tents panels, patches, bags and enough shoes to make Imelda Marcos blush. Excavations have also unearthed many leather scraps which are in storage, not notable enough on their own to warrant going on display. Curators discovered the mouse in a box of leather offcuts and scraps that had been found in the period IV/V residence of the  commanding officer in 1993. That dates the mouse to around 105-130 A.D.

The Trust’s Curator, Barbara Birley said “One of the most wonderful things about the Vindolanda collection is that we never know what we are going to find next. Even though we have had to delay the start of our 2020 excavations this year we see the collection still has hidden treasures to be revealed. Although we have a significant amount of evidence of children at Vindolanda we have very few toys, it would be wonderful if this little mouse had been a toy and a source of entertainment for a child here on the northern frontier”.

Real mice were indeed everywhere in ancient Vindolanda, in every fort, likely to be present in all houses and spaces and would have been a consistent pest and companion to the people who lived there. When the Vindolanda granaries were excavated in 2008, the bones from thousands of dead mice were uncovered below the floors of the building, where they had been living and feasting on the ears of grain that dropped between the flagstones. It is quite wonderful that someone 2,000 years ago crafted this toy mouse from leather, in the knowledge that their creation would not have sharp teeth nor eat them out of house and home.

The museum will study and conserve the newly-discovered rodent and will then put it on display in the leather case.

6 thoughts on “Roman leather toy mouse found in Vindolanda scrap bag

  1. Ha ha — “it would be wonderful if this little mouse had been a toy and a source of entertainment for a ….child“?

    I do not want to disappoint, but my personal guess would rather be that the child in question might have been a feline one >° °<

    'Feline viral rhinotracheitis' (FVR) is an upper respiratory or pulmonary infection of cats. When I was a child, my little sister had brought a tiny half dead black kitten from one of the nearby farms. Back then, light bulbs emitted heat, and under the lamp on my desk, i.e. over a week or two heavily snotting away, he indeed slowly recovered.

    We then took him to the garden, where he soon found a dried up rodent victim of our other cat, and that thing looked —exactly— like that Roman ‘scrap leather mouse’ as he started to play around with it like mad –it really was disgusting!

    The Horror!… What I also do remember is, one Sunday morning, out in the said garden, I caught him with a not-so-dead Rabbit, and -what can I say?- We had to have our breakfast inside.

    Never ever, though, have I met any fellow-children playing around with dead mice.

  2. On a side note, ‘mus‘, ‘cattus‘ and ‘felis‘ are Latin words, …possibly for a reason.

  3. I wonder if this great little image of a common pest might have been an offering to a god or house spirit in the sense of the Roman saying “Can you stop the this kind of wretched beast and all his kin from crapping in my porridge and chewing on my caligulae!”. It was common enough, I believe, in Roman times for curses invoking a god to have the name or a crude image of the intended viction with the written curse.

    Or maybe my imagination is getting the better of me and this little toy or idle project of a bored soldier later ended up in a bag of leather scraps. We’ll never know and it will end up being one of those wonderful “I wonder” moments that might be the basis of a great short story.

  4. ————
    Ad Bestias!!! …cum Panem et Circenses

    At the end of the day, from a cat point of view, it is possibly a matter of personal taste: Test it with a piece of rabbit fur as toy. Your Fluffy Flavia is possibly unable to decide, whether to stay inside or to leave. The mice, however, live either all inside or very near to your local granaries.

    If “the bones from thousands of dead mice were uncovered below the floors of the building”, I kindly invite the curators when in spring I uncover the garden furniture, i.e. where the Flavias cannot follow, and a considerable amount of rodents finds eternal refuge, i.e. until spring.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.