Chinese in Roman London? October 2, 2016Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback
Chinese in Roman London?
It is well known that the Roman empire was a cosmopolitan place, even a tedious, sorry backwater like Britannia. The combination of soldiers, slaves and solid economic infrastructure meant unprecedented movement of individuals. However, what about the history story of the week, the claim that two Chinese bodies have been dug up from a Roman cemetery near Roman London? (The screen capture above comes from the Daily Mail). The Chinese in Roman London?! Is this really credible?
Sources and Methods
Well, let’s start with the sources. There have recently been two notable studies of skeletons from Roman graveyards in the London area: as was typical in the Empire the bodies were buried outside the city walls. They are worth contrasting. First, we have had H. Shaw, J. Montgomery, R. Redfern, R. Gowland, and J. Evans, ‘Identifying migrants in Roman London using lead and strontium stable isotopes’, Journal of Archaeological Science 66 (2016), 57-68. Second, there is Rebecca C. Redfern, Darren R. Gröckec, Andrew R. Millard, Victoria Ridgewayd, Lucie Johnson and Joseph T. Hefnere ‘Going south of the river: A multidisciplinary analysis of ancestry, mobility and diet in a population from Roman Southwark, London’, Journal of Archaeological Science 74
Both articles try and determine the origins of a tiny sample of skeletons. However, they use, tellingly, a different selection of methods. The first article employs isotope readings, a now well accepted technique for trying to determine where this or that man, woman or child comes from. The results are, though, blunt: ‘The 87Sr/86Sr ratio is consistent with areas such as southwest England, Wales, Scotland, and elsewhere in the Continent but not Londinium or even most of Roman Britain.’ These readings do, however, give us ballparks and these ballparks are often worth strolling around.
But the second article makes a far more radical claim using a different technique. Let’s at this point quote the abstract. The most important parts are highlighted here.
This study investigated the ancestry, childhood residency and diet of 22 individuals buried at an A.D. 2nd and 4th century cemetery at Lant Street, in the southern burial area of Roman London. The possible presence of migrants was investigated using macromorphoscopics to assess ancestry, carbon and nitrogen isotopes to study diet, and oxygen isotopes to examine migration. Diets were found to be primarily C3-based with limited input of aquatic resources, in contrast to some other populations in Roman Britain and proximity to the River Thames. The skeletal morphology showed the likely African ancestry of four individuals, and Asian ancestry of two individuals, with oxygen isotopes indicating a circum-Mediterranean origin for five individuals. Our data suggests that the population of the southern suburb had an ongoing connection with immigrants, especially those from the southern Mediterranean
In the case of six individuals ‘skeletal morphology’ was used to reinforce the isotope findings. This means looking at skeleton measurements, particularly the skull, to judge ethnicity. It should be said immediately that ‘skeletal morphology’ is not a pseudo-science like phrenology. It is the method used in criminal pathology to determine the ethnicity of various skeletal John and Jane Does. Not only that but British archaeologists have employed this method to determine the background of several individuals from ancient Britain, not least the Beachy Head woman.
The Chinese in Roman London
So let’s move on to the two Chinese bodies. Who are they?
Candidate one was 18-25 and was buried in the second century AD. He had lived, on the basis of his dietary isotopes for the last years in Britain.
Candidate two was 26-35 and was buried in the fourth century AD. He had lived, on the basis of his dietary isotopes for the last years in Britain.
There is a third and more doubtful Asian candidate, a woman, who we’ll rudely ignore.
Neither candidate one or two had ‘London’ oxygen isotopes (this means that they had not been born in south-east England): but their isotopes are consistent with Cornwall or, er, parts of China (see ‘ball park’ above). This means that the only real evidence for two Chinese in Roman London is that of the skeletal measurements. Here it should be noted that both skeletons were relatively complete and that, respectively, fifteen traits (good) and seven traits (mediocre) could be read from the two candidates.
What is ‘Chinese’?
The big problem is what is meant by ‘Chinese’. Race is not, of course, cookie-cutter stuff. There are no pure Europeans, Africans or Asiatics. There are spectra and there are intermediate stages. This was admittedly less true in ancient times. The population of prehistoric Ireland, for example, would have been more ethnically homogeneous than in 1200. The population of Ireland in 1200 was more ethnically homogeneous than in 2000. But the area between Syria and Western China saw important movements of population from the very earliest times: something borne out by what might be called Silk Road DNA. There are still today, ‘Chinese’ looking populations as far west as Iraq and very ‘European’ populations as far east as Xinjiang in China.
Have Redfern and colleagues found a way around these issues of blurring? The simple answer is that they have not because skeletal morphology does not allow for such subtleties. For example, the authors have used three types of cranial measurements as their parameters: nineteenth century East/West African, eighteenth century Western European, nineteenth century Chinese/Japanese. This begs the question of where someone from Persia, say, or India or, for that matter, Syria belongs? In fact, in the article the authors very sensibly shy away from talking about two Chinese in Roman London. We are dealing with two individuals who are best referred to as ‘Asians’. The Roman Empire had, of course, its share of ‘Asian’ citizens and slaves, so in itself no surprise there. DNA tests are promised. These will be interesting. Memories of an exciting Italian test… (The first ‘Asian’ discovered in a Roman graveyard.)
Enter the Media
The authors kept to the high road in the article, but lost it ever so slightly in their interaction with the press. Rebecca Redfern refers in a BBC interview to people ‘with Asian ancestry’. The interviewer asks ‘So how can you tell that they are likely to be Chinese?’ RR does not correct the assumption of the interviewer: very possibly her press release sent out included the word ‘Chinese’ (Beach would put money on it) and marches on. She also notes that the team compared the ‘shape of their face’ to ‘Japanese and Chinese populations’. None of this is a mortal sin: is it even venal? Interactions between the media and academics are made up of these difficult moments: one wants drama the other wants to diffuse findings – nuances are lost. Then once the story falls into the laps of media outlets (and contact with the researchers is lost) offences against decency are inevitably committed.
The Mail not only quotes Senica [sic] but goes onto write:
Yet a collection of seemingly unremarkable bones discovered in a Roman cemetery in London has provided new insights into the links between the Roman Empire and Imperial China… The findings promise to rewrite the history of the Romans as it suggests these two great empires [Roman and Chinese] had far greater connections than previously believed.
The Independent pontificates, meanwhile:
It also suggests the Roman and Chinese empires may have had more interaction than many historians had previously thought. Crucially though, it raises the possibility that trade took place between Rome and China outside of the famous Silk Road.
Even our friends at History.com let themselves go:
How and why the Chinese men ended up in Londinium remains a mystery. As Redfern pointed out to the BBC, the ancient city was hardly the same draw that it is today… The research team has several theories as to what could have caused the Chinese men to have ended up in Roman Britain. ‘They may have been members of the military. They could have been merchants. They could have been economic migrants. They could have been enslaved people.’
Who were they?
But, on that subject of motives, let’s stop the moaning and turn to the two bodies. Who were these individuals? Well, we have surely to rule out diplomatic contact. With great respect to the glorious city on the Thames, Londinium was the anus of the Empire. No Asian diplomat in his right mind would have travelled to that mire when there was Alexandria and Rome closer at hand. It is conceivable that they were merchants. But again what would they be trading in boring old Britannia, Rome’s great mistake? (Claudius should never have gone near the island.) The easiest explanation is that these two men were slaves or freed slaves. Think of their relatively long residence in the area and their relatively poor burials. (They were interred, it should be noted, with a number of foreign born bodies.) If they were slaves it is possible that they were actually the children of slaves. In other words that they had themselves been born to an ‘Asian’ slave somewhere else in the empire and were, to all intents and purposes, Roman.
Conclusion? A fascinating find, let’s withhold judgement until we get the DNA, and beware media outlets bearing history stories
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