Dama: the deer that walked the world...by Naomi Sykes & Holly Miller (University of Nottingham), Jane Evans & Angela Lamb (BGS - Centre for Environmental Geochemistry)

Back in 2011 we began an international research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to explore the natural and cultural history of the European Fallow Deer (Dama dama dama). Over the last four years we have been working with (in alphabetical order!) anthropologists, archaeologists, (art) historians, deer stalkers, geochemists, geneticists, museum curators and zoologists to gather all available information that might help us to understand better the timing and circumstances by which this elegant and beautiful deer spread around the world.

At the start of the project, we thought we already knew most of the answers: all European fallow deer are from modern day Turkey, they were introduced to Britain by the Romans (or maybe the Normans) as a source of food, most probably coming from populations established in Italy/Sicily. Wrong! Or at least, not entirely right…

Our results have shown that the geographical origins of European fallow deer are more complex than initially thought and that, really, their history cannot be considered in isolation from the history of the Persian fallow deer (Dama dama mesopotamica). We have learnt that they played an important role in hunter-gatherer cultures and that their global march began when people first started farming. In fact, we think we might even have evidence that people tried to domesticate fallow deer along with all the other animals (cattle, sheep, pig) that are familiar domestic livestock today.

4th century BC golden drinking vessel (rhyton) recovered from
Panagyurishte in ancient Thrace in the shape of a fallow deer.
The Bronze Age cultures of the Mediterranean (the Minoans and Mycenaeans) valued fallow deer as religious icons – seemingly emparking or hunting them in worship of the Goddess Artemis, whose cult spread around the Mediterranean at the same pace as the fallow deer.

When Artemis metamorphosed into the Roman goddess Diana, it was her cult that saw fallow deer transported across western and northern Europe (Miller et al.; Miller and Sykes refs). Our collaboration with CEG has been central to understanding this situation and a short film about CEG’s involvement with the Roman research can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwqfEnKQj-w

We have known since the start of the project that fallow deer were first introduced to Britain during the Roman period. But do modern populations descend from these Roman deer? That was an unknown and we will soon publish our findings!

What we can say at this point is that the impact of the fallow deer on the landscape and culture of medieval Britain was dramatic, the rise of deer parks offering opportunities for displays of hunting amongst the elite (particularly women) and statements of defiance by those who broke into parks to poach the deer. But the power of the fallow deer to transform lives and environments did not stop in Britain. From the stately homes of England, fallow deer were taken around the British Empire as symbols of imperialism and colonial dominance. Occasionally these symbols have been reclaimed and transformed; for instance, today, the species is the national animal of Barbuda in the Caribbean (who knew?!) where the local population continue to take pride in ‘poaching’ as opposed to hunting the deer on the island.

The work that we have undertaken and the fascinating stories that we have uncovered cannot be summarised in a single short article. Indeed, we are currently finishing off the final monograph and waiting for a few more papers to be published.

If you cannot wait until these emerge, we have a treat for you… One of our tasks for 2013 was to travel the length and breadth of the country filming a documentary about our project (Figure 2). The hours and hours of footage have now been cut down to a short 30 minute film, made by wildlife photographer, Luke Saddler. The full film is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aagY-9wdtk
The team filming at the National Trust property of
Belton House, Lincolnshire.
We hope that you will enjoy it and we would love to hear your comments or answer any questions that you might have about the project. Happy watching!

Click the links for more information on the British Geological Survey or on the Centre for Environmental Geochemistry.

The Dama International project is funded by the AHRC (Standard Grant AH/I026456/1) and with support from the University of Nottingham. Find out more about the Dama International project at http://www.fallow-deer-project.net/ and follow and ask us questions via Twitter @DeerProject