Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Vindolanda Mouse

Curators at Vindolanda, a Roman fort along Hadrian's Wall, decided to spend some of their coronavirus downtime going through their collection of 7,000 unidentified scraps of leather. One of them turned out to be this toy mouse, dating to the 2nd century AD. Via The History Blog.


G. Verloren said...


I'm always a little skeptical when something is this abstract in form - it seems foolhardy to me to assume we know precisely what this represents. We humans are exceedingly good at noticing patterns, but that comes at the price of sometimes seeing the wrong pattern, or seeing patterns where none actually exist.

Does this look vaguely like a mouse? Sure - but it also looks vaguely like a lizard. There are elements which work both for and against each reading. It's hard to say.


What I will note is that there are problems with both interpretations. If it's a mouse, it has an oddly fat tail. But if it's a lizard, the torso is oddly fat.

Proponents of the mouse theory might point to the "ears" - but if those are mouse ears, they're pretty heavily abstracted. Meanwhile, proponents of the lizard theory might suggest those are just the exaggerated "corners" of the back of a lizard's skull - but if that's true, we're once again dealing with rather heavy abstraction.

The first group might point to the lines running down the length and sees them as hair or fur, and thus it's a mouse. The latter group might note those same lines and argue they could just as easily represent scales - and also point out that the lines in question run down the length of the (oddly fat) tail, and while mice and rats don't have furry tails, lizards do have scaled ones.

What if this is neither a lizard nor a mouse, but perhaps some other animal native to Britain? Perhaps some other kind of mammal with tail that is actually furry? A fox? A badger? An otter? A stoat, marten, mink, or weasel? A squirrel? Arguments could be made for abstracted or inaccurate representations of any of them.


I'm not sure what either group would say to the fact that there's something quite strange about the legs. If it is a lizard, then both sets of legs connect to the body at "the wrong end" - a lizard at rest splays it's limbs outward away from the body, not turned back toward the center. A mouse is a little better, but not entirely - the back legs match a typical mouse's posture, but not the front legs.

Although, from a skeletal standpoint, the orientation is actually correct - at least for the upper portion of each limb, the humerus or the femur. Both kinds of limbs in both creatures point back inward toward the body from the "shoulder" to the "knee".

How do we make sense of this? Which kind of abstraction are we seeing here? One that incorrectly represents the typical stance or posture of the animal, or one that represents the actual mechanics of the skeleton but omits a major complexity?

G. Verloren said...


And what of the possibility of pareidolia? What if it wasn't intentionally made to resemble an animal at all, and we're seeing a pattern where none actually exists.

Perhaps this is just a semi-random scrap left over from someone cutting leather, much as a seamster cuts a bolt of cloth. Maybe the cutter noticed the resemblance it had to an animal kept it as a "toy" or "talisman" or whatever else. Or maybe the didn't notice anything at all, and it was always just rubbish, and only now are we assigning it greater meaning.

This is speculated to have been a toy, but it's rather small - the body is no longer than an adult's finger. Would this really be something a child would play with?

I've also seen speculation that perhaps it was a cat toy - but if that were the case, wouldn't it have chew marks? Also, if the site had mice, wouldn't you want the cats going after the real McCoy instead of playing with a fake?

I do somewhat wonder about the "hair" lines - they look fairly uniform, both in length and perhaps also in depth. Might this have been used somewhat like a pincushion, with grooves cut into it intended to hold some sort of small object?


It just bothers me to no end that we so readily make definitive claims, authoritatively calling this a "mouse" with a confidence that is entirely unjustified. Arrogance! Hubris! Can't we just admit we don't really know?