The Fable of Britain’s Easter Animals

In this blog post, Professor Naomi Sykes, The Lawrence Professor of Archaeology, University of Exeter and a team of researchers*, shines a light on a new research project which explores how animals such as rabbits and chickens became synonymous with Easter celebrations.

Easter is an important British festival, yet none of its iconic elements are native to Britain. Alongside Christianity and chocolate, the animals associated with Easter – the Easter Bunny (European rabbit or brown hare) and the chicken – were all introduced by people. A new research project combining archaeological, historical and linguistic evidence is exploring when these animals arrived, and how they became incorporated into modern Easter traditions.

Newly generated radiocarbon dates, targeting the earliest archaeological examples of each species, show that brown hares and chickens were simultaneously introduced to Iron Age Britain, around the fifth-third century BC (Figs 1, 2A, 2B). Intriguingly, neither animal was likely imported as a source of food, since many of the earliest chicken and brown hare specimens are complete skeletons, buried with care and show no traces of butchery (Fig 2C, 2D).

This evidence fits with Julius Caesar’s statement in his Gallic Wars that the Iron Age Britons considered it “contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken, or the goose”. Similarly, the third-century AD author, Dio Cassius reported that Queen Boudicca released a live hare from the folds of her dress in order to divine the outcome of her battle with the Romans, calling upon the goddess Andraste to secure victory. These accounts suggest that, as rare exotica, chickens and hares were too special to be eaten, and were instead associated with deities. Finds of Iron Age/Roman brooches, which are known to reference specific gods, support this. For instance, those shaped as cockerels were worn by acolytes of the god Mercury and it is likely that hare-shaped brooches reflect similar devotion to a hare goddess (Figs 2E, 2F).  

The religious association of hares and chickens endured throughout the Roman period. However, archaeological evidence shows that as their populations grew, both animals were increasingly eaten, and hares were even farmed as livestock. At this point, rather than being buried as individuals, hare and chicken remains were disposed of as food waste: large quantities were recovered from Fishbourne Palace and Whitehall Farm in feasting contexts dating to the first/second-century (Fig 1, 2G, 2H). This is also when rabbits were first introduced to Britain, as evidenced by a directly dated bone from Fishbourne Palace (Fig 1).

In AD 410, the Romans withdrew from Britain causing economic collapse. Then, in AD 536, the climate cooled significantly which may have triggered the AD 540s Justinian Plague. This combination of economic, climatic and pandemic issues impacted all the Easter animals. Rabbits became locally extinct, while populations of chickens and brown hares crashed (Fig 2A, 2B). Due to their scarcity at this time, chickens and hares regained their special status.

Received wisdom suggests that hares and chickens became connected with the pagan goddess Eostre, from whom Easter takes its name. She is first mentioned by the Venerable Bede in his eighth-century book on The Reckoning of Time; however, Bede never links Eostre with chickens or hares. There is an early Christian candidate for a reconfigured pagan hare deity: Melangell, the Welsh Patron Saint of hares (Fig 2I). According to legend, Melangell protected a hare from a hunter by hiding it in the fold of her dress (reminiscent of Boudicca’s story). She forbade hare hunting, and a widespread hunting prohibition may explain the scarcity of hares in the archaeological record until the medieval period, when they became a key quarry (Fig 2A). 

Chicken populations rose dramatically around AD 1000, a shift also associated with Christian food taboos (Fig 2B). In the sixth century, Saint Benedict forbade the consumption of meat from four-legged animals during fasting periods (e.g. Lent). His rules were widely adopted in the tenth/eleventh centuries, increasing the popularity of chickens and eggs as fast-day foods (Fig 2J).

Sacred icons of the wild

Today, chickens are simply fast food, while hares are, for many, sacred icons of the wild. Hare populations are recovering from over-hunting during the early modern period. Some of this hunting was, itself, associated with Easter. Historical evidence for the Easter Hare Hunt dates back to at least the seventeenth century, as at Coleshill in Warwickshire, where men who presented a hare to the parson by Easter Monday would receive 100 eggs for breakfast.

Declining hare populations mirrored the expansion of rabbits, which had been reintroduced during the thirteenth century (Fig 1, 2A). Rabbits were increasingly common in the nineteenth-century landscape, likely contributing to their replacement of the hare as the Easter Bunny when the festival’s traditions were reinvigorated during the Victorian period (Fig 2K).

Over the last 2,500 years, the fate of Britain’s non-native Easter animals has been heavily influenced by religious beliefs, over-exploitation, climatic catastrophe, and pandemics. The story of their resilience in the face of changing fortunes is a new fable that is especially welcome this Easter. 

To find out more about animals and their association with key celebrations such as Christmas and Easter, you can read this Open Access article in World Archaeology.

Easter craft activity

If you’re looking for something to do this Easter while staying at home – then here is a great activity for all ages. Simply download and make this Easter decoration, which can be displayed as a wall hanging or mobile, and learn the stories of the animals that make Easter celebrations what they are today.

*This blog post was co-authored by the following researchers:

Naomi Sykes, University of Exeter
Carly Ameen, University of Exeter
Julia Best, Cardiff University
Sean Doherty, University of Exeter
Tom Fowler, University of Nottingham
Greger Larson, University of Oxford
Mark Maltby, University of Bournemouth
Philip Shaw, University of Leicester

Picture credits

D – Julia Best and Grace Clark
E – PAS [YORYM-DFECD5] York Museums Trust (CC BY-SA 4.0)
F – PAS [SF-E75893] Suffolk County Council Archaeology Service (CC BY-SA 4.0)
I – Melangell (Public Domain)
J – Istock
K – Easter Bunny (Public Domain)
L – Easter Card (Public Domain)

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