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Ancient Animals

Tracking ancient animals to write a new natural history of the UK

Exeter University

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Few of the animals that we see around us today are ‘native’. Many animals that used to roam our shores have been brought to extinction and, in their place, others have been introduced. Very little is known about the timing, circumstances and impact of these introductions and extinctions, and the Ancient Animals project and smartphone app will help historians to answer many of the questions that exist about the UK’s fauna.

When you begin to look, ancient animals are everywhere: in architecture, paintings and even pub signs; in objects that depict them or are made of their bones, antler/horn or skins; and even the remains of the animals themselves, unearthed from archaeological excavations.

The app provides a guide detailing current knowledge about the animals under study and where their representations might be found. It allows contributors to submit photographs of ancient animal representations (i.e. 2-D painting, 3-D sculpture, physical remains, object/artefact or other). These can be taken in real-time and instantly geolocated, or uploaded from camera rolls with geolocation data added manually.

By gathering together and tracking all of these representations we can begin to understand when particular species start, or stop, being represented and in what kinds of contexts. This information will help generate a new natural and cultural history for the mammals of Britain, Europe and beyond.

Ancient Animals app home page

The project creators are hoping the public will join them for a different kind of Easter hunt this year by downloading their ‘Ancient Animals’ App and collecting evidence of the earliest representations of bunnies.

Neither the European rabbit nor the brown hare are native to Britain. Little is known about the timing and circumstances of their introduction or how they how they came to be associated with the Christian festival of Easter. These are issues that researchers from the University of Exeter, University of Oxford and University of Leicester are trying to address. But they need the public’s help.

The first historical mention of Easter dates to the Anglo-Saxon period, in the 8th-century.

The team believes that ancient animal iconography might provide the necessary clues to track the spread of rabbits and hares across Europe, understand when they were introduced to Britain and even discover the origins of the Easter Bunny.

People can submit photographs of ancient animal representations such as 2-D paintings, 3-D sculptures, physical remains, objects or artefacts. The app will allow users to instantly upload images from their phones, and input information about the location and type of evidence they’ve found.

Besides rabbits and hares, the app will allow people to submit records for a variety of other animals – be they native, introduced or extinct – each of which has its own fascinating story that can be told through their ancient representations.

ancient animals app uploaded record
Brown Hare - Ian Hull