A Long Way from Home: Diaspora Communities in Roman Britain

Reconstructions produced by Aaron Watson, copyright University of ReadingA major research project in the Department of Archaeology, University of Reading, has examined Romano-British skeletons to explore how diverse urban populations were, using a combination of techniques. The Roman Empire saw considerable migration through military recruitment, administration, trade and slavery but previous research on foreigners has relied heavily on inscriptions, which are rare and unevenly distributed. This multi-disciplinary project (2007-2009) explored the cultural and biological experience of immigrant communities in Roman Britain. It was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and directed by Dr Hella Eckardt, Dr Mary Lewis and Dr Gundula Müldner. We worked with two post-doctoral research assistants (Stephany Leach specialising in osteology and Carolyn Chenery in isotope analysis).

Diaspora communities in Britain under Rome

Britain under Rome was truly multi-cultural, with historical and epigraphic evidence recording the voluntary and forced migration of Gaulish, Germanic, and North African individuals. Until now, physical evidence for these migrants has been largely unexplored. How did these diaspora communities create identities that were distinct from the host society, and maintain ideological links with their homeland? Can we identify incomers, and do they differ from the host population in their health and diet?

Evidence for these diaspora communities was analysed through a combination of material culture, skeletal and isotope research. We selected five Romano-British cemeteries, focusing on inhumation burials from York, Catterick, Gloucester, Dorchester (Poundbury) and Winchester (Lankhills). Sites were selected from settlements of differing status and function including military, civil, and urbanised. All skeletons are dated to between the second and fourth century AD.


Fractured ribs in a young child from Poundbury Camp, Dorset.At York, potential immigrants were identified using ancestral traits, which involved measuring skulls and comparing them to modern forensic reference populations. Isotope analysis, which records the chemical signatures in ancient teeth and bone, was then carried out on a sample of these skeletons, as well as those from Gloucester, Winchester and Catterick. For this we used both oxygen and strontium isotope analysis to distinguish between locals and migrants, and carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analysis to examine diet. The latter integrates current research on the importance of traditional diets and "nutrition transition" in immigrant communities.

Isotopic analysis of skeletons from Roman York showing what may be local individuals (pink box) and incomersDetailed osteological research was also carried out on a group of children buried at Poundbury, who showed unusually high numbers of rib fractures and other pathologies, to explore the biological and cultural experience of this community.

Our work shows that considerable numbers of the individuals buried in major Roman towns such as York and Winchester did not grow up there, and that not just men but also women and children moved across the Roman Empire. We also found that the relationship between burial rites, grave goods and geographic origin is much more complicated than previously thought, probably reflecting factors such as intermarriage and the presence of second generation migrants.


The results of this research continue to be published and include:

Foreigners and Locals in Roman Britain: Painting a more Complex Picture for School Children

Character from the Romans Revealed resourceIn addition to academic publications, we have developed a teaching resource for Key Stage 2: Romans Revealed. The website presents four individuals selected from our research (some locals and some incomers) and children can explore them either through 'digging up' their graves or through following short stories written by Caroline Lawrence (author of children's books ‘Roman Mysteries) and illustrated by Aaron Watson (http://www.monumental.uk.com/).

A teaching resource pack for teachers provides lesson plans for Key Stage 2 and can be used by children to learn about how diverse Roman Britain was and what the people who lived here during Roman times were really like. The individuals from York, in particular the so-called 'Ivory Bangle Lady', also feature in a brand new exhibition in the Yorkshire Museum; this opened in August 2010 following a major £2 million refurbishment of the museum (www.yorkshiremuseum.org.uk).

Diasporas logoThe original research project was funded by the AHRC, as part of the "Diasporas, Migration and Identity" research programme. The outreach was also funded by the AHRC.






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