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Migration and cultural integration in Britain are a dominant focus for media outlets that sometimes seem to push an "us versus them" narrative. Anxieties about migration have been cited as reasons for the recent Brexit vote and shape debates about accepting refugees into the UK. However, research from Professor Hella Eckardt shows that the UK has been home to a diverse population since at least the Roman period.

Migration is a personal topic for Hella. Her grandparents were refugees from Estonia, and she herself migrated to the UK from Germany. As an expert in Roman artefacts, Hella was curious about what objects from Roman Britain could tell us about mobility and migration – do exotic objects always mean that the person buried with them was foreign?

Working with two colleagues – Reading archaeologists Professor Mary Lewis and Dr Gundula Müldner – Hella applied a new scientific technique to Romano-British skeletons to determine their origin. The technique looks at chemical signatures in teeth (isotopic signatures); these signatures reflect the climate, water and food that a person consumes in childhood, and can tell us where he or she originally came from. They can show that while a person may appear, archaeologically, to be foreign, they may in fact have been born in Roman Britain – proving that we cannot make assumptions about where a person is from.

"What this enables you to do is actually play-off the archaeological cultural impression against geographical origin. I don't believe that where a person comes from is the most important thing about them, but if I know where they come from and what objects they're buried with, then I can say something about who they were."

A new perspective on the past

This technique had never been applied to the Roman period before, and while we've always known that the Romans moved, we couldn't demonstrate it without an inscription – and inscriptions from Roman Britain are rare.

We can now prove that later Roman towns in Britain had very diverse populations, and that travellers were not just soldiers and administrators – women and children migrated here, too.

"This is enriching the picture of people in Roman Britain. Rather than thinking these were all legionnaires from Italy, the research shows that women and children travelled, and came from all over the place. Some of them are from slightly warmer areas, but a lot of them are from cooler, more continental areas, like Germany or Poland."

A modern link

Hella's findings are an important reminder that a closed-border Britain has never really been a reality.

"I think that it's important politically to show that migration is not a new issue. That's not to say the Roman world was a multicultural utopia – it wasn't. These people were conquerors. But this research shows that the reality has always been more complicated."

Research that feeds into teaching

Hella's research feeds directly into her third-year undergraduate module, "Objects and identities in the Roman empire". It has also helped shaped a number of students' dissertation projects.

For example, students have researched Africans in Roman Britain, evaluated museum exhibitions that relate to population diversity, and looked at educational resources on the topic.

Learn more about our undergraduate courses