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On the trail of the fallow deer

An AHRC project has overturned earlier theories about the origins of a much-loved species.

You’ll have seen the European fallow deer in parks surrounding stately homes – but you probably won’t be aware of just how much impact their introduction has had in many countries. Ever since the Neolithic Era, humans have selectively transported and maintained this elegant animal, leaving us a record of migration, trade, behaviour and worldview.

That’s why the AHRC has funded a major international interdisciplinary project between 2011 and this year, led by Dr Naomi Sykes of the University of Nottingham, to examine the circumstances and cultural significance of this species' diffusion across Europe.

“When you go back in time, the arrival of a new animal is not something that’s happening by accident,” Sykes says. “People are deliberately moving the animals. What we can study through the movement of animals is really the movement of people but also the movement of ideas and attitudes to the natural world as well.”

Figure 1: Fallow deer (Luke Saddler)

The project's results are challenging the 'received wisdom' about the species, says Sykes. “I realised there was very little that was actually known about fallow deer - there was plenty of received wisdom that had been circulated in various texts and then re-circulated until it was seen as ‘fact’ but, in reality, we know very little,” she explains.

Fallow deer is the most widely distributed deer species on the planet, from the Caribbean to New Zealand, but as Sykes says, it is unclear how they got there and from where. “20,000 years ago was the last glacial maximum when we had a big lump of ice sat on top of Britain, and that pushed all the animals that did live in Britain before the glacial period away and down to southern Europe, and it’s always been suggested in the literature that the glacial refuge of the fallow deer is in Anatolia, in modern-day Turkey,” says Sykes.

The project has combined examination of archaeological evidence with genetic studies and biochemical analysis of deer remains. “We’ve been employing all of these techniques to try to understand what’s going on, whether this deer population really is Anatolian, whether that last population is as endangered as we think, and how can it be that this deer species has gone global from what is a very small area,” says Sykes.

And the results have been remarkable, declares Sykes. “Everything that we thought we knew about this species, and of course we didn’t know that much, is wrong. It doesn’t look like any deer [globally] have ever come from Anatolia. It looks as though that Anatolian population has never gone anywhere, and has gradually dwindled away and is becoming extinct due to issues of over-hunting.”

So if the European fallow deer isn’t originally from Anatolia, where did it come from?

Sykes thinks it could be next-door – in the Balkans. “It’s in the Roman period that we see the first major spread of fallow deer,” she says. “I think the deer are being picked up in Bulgaria, which is where we have evidence for a cult of Artemis (later, Roman Diana), the goddess of hunting. We know that Artemis and Diana were closely associated with fallow deer — we’ve got all this incredible material of culture, beautiful golden drinking horns, all in the shape of fallow deer (see Figure 2), dedicated to the goddess, and they’re all in the same region as we find this little genetic population of fallow deer that we then start to find appearing across the Roman Empire. From the first century BC, they start to appear in Italy, Sicily, through to Portugal and Spain and of course into Britain as well. What we’ve been able to show is that the spread of fallow deer across the Roman Empire is likely linked into the spread of new religious beliefs, something that’s being explored in the project’s exhibition at the museum of Fishbourne Roman Palace, in Sussex.”

Figure 2: Fallow deer rhyton from Panagyurishte, Bulgaria c. 400 B.C. Image Public domain.

But these Roman introductions to Britain went extinct, and did not return until a thousand years later — potentially just before the Norman Conquests and, again, possibly from the Balkans. These findings are stunning as historians refuse to countenance the idea that there were any formal trade networks between Britain and the Balkans at this point. Sykes thinks that this is missing the point.

“If you think about pandas that we find in zoos across the world today, this has nothing to do with normal trade - it’s the exchange of special exotica, cultural icons, it’s about forming political allegiances, that is what the animals are reflecting,” she says. “The timing of the fallow deer’s re-introduction to Britain also challenges the concept that all introduced species were transported by by ‘invading peoples’. We always say, ‘Oh, it’ll have been the Romans’ or ‘It was the Normans’, that were responsible for changing biodiversity but that need not have been the case. Rather than an invading army it could actually just be one person, one anonymous person who went travelling, saw some beautiful deer and decided to transport some back as a gift. It could be as straightforward as that.”

Geneticist Dr Karis Baker is cautious about the DNA findings so far, but agrees: “There’s definitely something going on in the Balkans. We can’t say everything has come from there, we haven’t got enough samples to make that link definitively but we’ve got a few samples that are suggesting things. The problem is in these key areas, Turkey, Balkans, Greece, the climate is really hot and the samples are really old, so that’s the worst thing for DNA preservation.”

She is also keen to point out the importance of the deer that are in Anatolia, regardless of whether or not they are the source for the world’s European fallow deer population. “It is genetically distinct from anything else we find anywhere else. We should still maintain that,” she says. “It doesn’t downgrade that as a population, it just alters the way we think about the conservation of the species.”

Sykes also highlights the importance of the project’s findings for modern deer management, sounding a note of caution about the thriving population in the UK: “You may hear every so often that there’s a need for a cull because large deer populations are responsible for environmental damage. The situation is actually more complex than this but we can say that it is, in part, a legacy of the medieval period. During the Middle Ages hunting was the pop culture and deer were nurtured, being kept in thousands of parks across Britain. At the same time top predators - the wolves, bears and lynx were exterminated. Like all fashions, the medieval hunting went out of fashion but the deer did not go away and, over the centuries, without any predators (human or carnivores) deer populations have increased. Today the management of wild deer could provide a sustainable source of free-range organic meat but many people don’t like the idea of eating venison, so much of it is exported to mainland Europe.”

So as well as tracing the history of the deer population, the project team have been working with the British Deer Society, the National Trust and inner-city schools to highlight the cultural significance of the fallow deer herds as well as the need to manage the populations — several National Trust properties are now selling fallow deer venison in their gift shops and cafes.

For Naomi Sykes, the AHRC’s tenth anniversary allows her to think about her work in relation to her career as a whole, much of it supported by the AHRC. The beginning of the AHRC in 2005 coincides with the start of my professional academic career,” she says, “when I was appointed to my first lectureship in Archaeology. From this moment, through the subsequent ten years, support from the AHRC has been behind everything that I have achieved: my research projects, my publications, my career development and my ability to help the careers and lives of others within and outside the academy. From collaborative doctoral awards and research training networks to study leave and major international research projects, the AHRC has given me the time and resources to help preserve endangered skills, generate new knowledge about the past through cutting-edge interdisciplinary enquiry and render these findings relevant to humanity's present and future. To make such a contribution to world culture was always my motivation for becoming an archaeologist and support from the AHRC has allowed, and continues to enable, me to do so.”

Figure 3: Creating films for National Trust about the cultural history of their deer herds
Figure 4: Members of British Deer Society work with the project to train the National Trust deer managers and inform the public about the cultural and environmental impact of fallow deer
Figure 5: Working with British Deer Society and chef, Valentine Warner, to highlight benefits of eating wild venison to school pupils at Nottingham University Samworth Academy

This motivation continues through her current work and, as the project enters its closing stages, Sykes is very pleased with the findings so far. “Because of this AHRC-funded project we have rewritten the natural and cultural history of this species, gaining insights into some of the highest-profile issues in archaeology,” she says, “and, importantly, the work that we have done on ancient populations has significant implications for modern deer conservation and management, as well as food security.”

For further information, please go to the project website.

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