Hare or rabbit?

Chris Blair-Myers

Several fragments of Nene Valley colour coated wares have been found at Otford. They are a hard, thin, finely potted wheel thrown ceramic, with usually a white to off-white fabric. The colour is somewhat variable with orange-yellow or darker grey-brown also known.

They are coated in a black to dark brown slip that can be orange where thinner. The fabric can be brittle, and the thinness of the potting usually means that we only find small fragmentary sherds. Then again sometimes we get lucky…

These four sherds, almost certainly from the same pot, were found on the courtyard surface at the rear of the central range. Actually, it was in the same context that produced a sherd of Samian mortarium. The fabric was provisionally identified as Nene Valley, but there is still debate as to whether it is, in fact, a “Cologne ware” product. This is because the two are almost indistinguishable, though the matt slip might point more towards Cologne as the source.

The barbotine decoration is a very familiar image found on hunt cups produced both at Cologne and the Nene Valley. Production at Cologne is thought to start in the Claudian period (mid 1st Century), although some potters moved to the Nene Valley taking the forms and barbotine decorative styles with them. Production of hunt cups at Nene Valley is thought to have started in the 2nd century.

The cups usually portray hounds chasing hinds, stags or hares in highly stylized forms. Quite what is shown on the Otford shards is not entirely clear, but it is probably the head of a hare and the back legs of a hound.

As they are freely drawn by pouring the liquid slip no two are identical – so it’s quite impossible to conjecture the complete decoration. Almost certainly the pot would be ‘bag shaped’ which is the default style for the pots from both the Cologne and the Nene Valley kilns. Sadly there are too many missing elements to attempt a proper drawing or diagram, as there is quite some variation in bag shapes and decoration.

Our hunting cup sherds.

The example below is a bag shaped Nene Valley hunt cup on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art, USA. It shows hounds, hares and deer amidst highly stylized vegetation.

The hare:

bag shaped Nene Valley hunt cup.

The hind:

bag shaped Nene Valley hunt cup.

The stag:

bag shaped Nene Valley hunt cup.

The hound:

bag shaped Nene Valley hunt cup.


Do you see a hare or rabbit? Setting aside the obvious artistic license regarding size (James Stewart and Harvey’s opinion may differ), and hares are larger than rabbits also having longer ears… but, is it a rabbit or a hare?

There is, after all, some debate whether rabbits were introduced by the Romans or the Normans. Historically the latter have always had the dubious distinction of being culpable for that particular pest – and the subsequent modern depredations of your allotment vegetables – However, the discovery of rabbit bones in a Roman context in Norfolk throws some doubt on that assumption. 

Those in the Norman camp would undoubtedly claim that Romans may well have kept and bred rabbits as a food source, but keeping them caged and farmed they couldn’t possibly escape and go feral, could they?

I think they said the same about mink centuries later…

Return To Finds Page
%d bloggers like this: