Britain’s history is generally portrayed in terms of its kings and political leaders, invasions from Europe, and the rise and fall of the British Empire. The main characters are generally male and white. And yet a closer inspection of a key period of immigration paints a different picture. It overturns earlier assumptions and highlights the presence in Britain of men, women and children with diverse origins and identities.
The Roman occupation of Britain took place from 43 BCE to 410 CE. But the people who conquered and then settled over this period came from all over the Roman Empire, from the Mediterranean, the Balkans, North Africa and Northern Europe. The empire facilitated the movement of people, cults, goods and ideas, all of which made their way to Roman Britain. Evidence of these movements can be found in the material remains of villas and public spaces, in inscriptions and grave sites, and – of course – in the museums where they are kept, often in those same towns and cities once under Roman occupation.
©Aaron Watson, Ivory bangle lady (archaeological reconstruction)
Did these Roman migrants and their children maintain distinctive identities and cultures, and how can we find out?
Romano-British cemeteries provide valuable evidence of socially and culturally diverse populations. By analysing archaeological finds and skeletons from York, Catterick, Gloucester, Winchester and Poundbury in Dorchester, researchers found that up to 30% of those buried did not grow up locally but had migrated from somewhere else in the empire. They used scientific analysis on the isotopes in teeth and bones to distinguish migrants from local people on the basis of their diet and the climate in their place of origin. Analysis of skeletons and grave goods revealed evidence not only of newcomers, but of a second generation. Children born and brought up in the vicinity were buried with goods originating abroad; but migrants also owned things made locally, suggesting that they mixed freely and valued each other’s culture.