The bones of fallow deer found at Fishbourne Roman Palace, near Chichester have shown that the animals were around in Britain for 1,000 years longer than previously believed.
The remains, from Roman levels of the site, have been identified by experts, who said the location could be regarded as the country's first safari park.
And the discovery provides the first indisputable evidence that fallow deer (pictured) were introduced to Britain by the Romans, and not the Normans, as has been thought.
Strontium isotope measurements were used on the teeth of deer found at Fishbourne, and it is now believed the animals were first introduced into Britain as a gift to the Romanised aristocracy.
The archaeological journal Antiquity said Dr Naomi Sykes, of Nottingham University, spotted the lower jaw bones of two fallow deer while re-analysing bones that were excavated from the palace in the 1960s.
It was likely they were originally wrongly identified as being from cattle. Carbon dating showed one of the bones dated to around 60AD and the other to around 90AD.
Further chemical analysis showed that the earlier of the two deer had probably been born in Europe and imported as a live animal, while the other was born and died at Fishbourne.
According to Dr Sykes, it is likely that, as well as building the enormous palace at Fishbourne, the invading Romans built a vivarium, or landscaped garden, that was stocked with newly imported species such as fallow deer – their intention being to impress the locals with their extravagant and exotic lifestyles.
Dr Sykes said: 'These discoveries have rewritten a small part of our history. We have never been sure what the land surrounding Fishbourne looked like, but now it seems that at least part of it was set aside as a park to house a species of animal that was entirely new to the locals.
'It could be seen as Britain's first safari park. We hope further research will shed more light on this park and what it looked like.'
The bones, and thousands of other artefacts, are stored at the palace's new collections discovery centre.
The curator of these artefacts, Dr Robert Symmons, said work like this was exactly the reason why artefacts were kept for years, often decades, after they were excavated. Dr Sykes had shown that by revisiting material from old excavations we could learn a great deal using modern techniques.
'It makes you wonder how many other great discoveries like this are waiting to be found,' he said.
It also makes you wonder when someone is going to write about 'Romanization' from a dietary standpoint ... ...