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Africans in Roman London (48AD – 410AD): what DNA tests of 22 Londoners found

Written by Oadeye

There have often been wrong assumptions regarding ancient relationships between Africans and the rest of the world, particularly Europe. For example; people wrongly assume that it was Europeans that travelled to Africa, first, or that the age of discovery between the early 15th century and 17th century was the first point of contact between Africans and Europeans, or that it was exclusively a homogenous European population (white population) that was the basis of development in Europe. Surprisingly there are even beliefs that any dark skin individual that lived in Europe during those times were either slaves or descendant of slaves. These improper inferences have continuously been negated as more and more facts emerge, gradually but inexorably revealing glimpses of the past life of ancient European inhabitants. Thanks to recent advancements in technology and archaeological techniques, undisputable facts have been discovered which justly paints a picture of what might have been the way of life during those times.

Recent Studies

Although findings such as The Ivory Bangle Lady, The Beachy Head Lady, etc. together with a plethora of other pieces of evidence have already dispelled the wrongful views on Africans that lived in Roman Britain, there are even yet more recent findings which help re-establish this fact and goes further to shed some light on the social diversity of Roman London.

Museum of London Chief Technician Cliff Thomas, With Skeleton of a Woman of Black African Ancestry.(museumoflondon.org.uk)

Co-curator of the Museum of London Docklands, Dr Rebecca Redfern recently wrote about new research in which the findings call for a change on how Roman Londoners are viewed. The research was carried out by a distinguished group of bioarchaeologists[1]and involved examining many skeletal remains of people that lived during the time of Roman London. They employed several techniques to achieve proper and accurate results: forensic ancestry method, light stable isotopes and ancient DNA.

The forensic ancestry method compares bones of people that have passed away within the past century against the ancient remains to determine their ancestry.

Light stable isotope analyses determine diet and place of childhood origin by analyses of the chemicals found in the skeletons and teeth which are left by the type of food and water they ate and drank. Also, by analyzing the oxygen, strontium, and lead found in the skeletons, where they grew up can be determined.

Ancient DNA analysis as the name suggests analyses the genes to determine ancestry: y chromosome haplogroups and mitochondrial DNA.

The findings from this research inspired an exhibition at The Museum of London Docklands called “Roman Dead Exhibition”.

During the research, a lot of discoveries were made. There were quite a number of black African remains including a 46-year-old male of black African Ancestry that grew up in Roman London.

A cemetery in Southwark that was studied showed that some of the skeletons were of black African Ancestry and appeared to have travelled from the southern Mediterranean. The manner of their burial suggested connections outside of Britain; perhaps they were merchants.

The discoveries were not only restricted to Africans. People from Germany, Southern Mediterranean, and all over the Roman empire were also discovered.

The nature and style of the different burials and grave goods found indicated that people of diverse origins lived and died in Roman London. Results from the research painted a picture of the coming together of people from different communities, establishment of new identities and the mixing of places of origin, occupation and native customs that culminated into Roman London. Indeed the Roman empire had a massive effect on Britain.

EFFECT OF THE ROMANS ON BRITAIN

The Roman Empire was colossal; it encompassed most of western Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. They arrived in Britain AD43, and by the time they left some 370 years later around AD410, they had changed and altered the way of life of Europe particularly Britain. The Impact of Romans on Britain cannot be overemphasized, and it has shaped their history.

Road Built By Romans In Britain During Roman Britain Times.

The Romans introduced new ideas, new ways of living, new doctrines that have forever changed Britain. Before the arrival of the Romans, only a few people could read or write in Britain; information was heavily based on word of mouth[2]. The Romans, however, had already highly developed their language Latin and, it was widely written, read and spoken among the ruling class of Rome. All of their literature, history, and laws were written in Latin; it did not take long before the inhabitants of Britain also began using Latin. Although most of the Brits living in the countryside during the Roman occupation still stuck to their old Celtic language.

The effect Latin had on Britain is evident today, there are still lots of English words today that originate from Latin. Even some English coins are based on Roman design and have Latin inscriptions on them.

The Romans rapidly developed Britain; they built over 16,000km of new roads all across Britain. The roads were built on foundations of clay, chalk, and gravel; soundly built with ditches on both sides to drain water from rains. Some of these roads have been modernized today and converted into motorways. Some are still in their original state and can still be seen presently.

The Romans built towns and introduced the idea of living in “big towns and cities.” They built towns that were carefully planned and well thought out. Roman towns were laid out in grids and streets crisscrossed to form squares or blocks known as insulae. The middle was called the forum; in the forum they established markets.

In Britain, any town or city that has “Chester,” “Caster” or “Cester” in its name was most likely a Roman town. E.g. Manchester, Doncaster, Gloucester, etc. Chester originates from the Latin word castrum which means a fort. It was the Romans that developed London; formerly a Roman city called Londinium. The Romans built a fort near the river Thames where traders from all over the length and breadth of the British Isles came to trade. Londinium grew and grew until it became the most important city in Roman Britain. The Romans under the Roman Empire was a racially diverse society. They did not think of race in the same context as it is observed today. They weren’t concerned about skin colour; this is evident when you observe that Roman scholars did not write much about the skin colour of a people; they were more concerned on whether an individual is well spoken in Latin or what their social position or rank was.

Hadrian’s Wall Built In AD122 By Emperor Hadrian Separating Roman Britain and Scotland. It ran for 73 miles from Wallsend-on-Tyne to Bowness.(www.bbc.com)

It has now become evident that as far back as AD43 individuals of African ancestry were not uncommon in Roman urban centres and indeed Europe even as far north as Britain, and even on the Antonine Wall. Out of a total of about 22 individuals from Southwark cemetery whose remains were examined four were of African ancestry. And their isotopic analyses showed they were raised in Africa or somewhere warmer than Britain. A spoon and a lamp with sub-Saharan African representations have been found by archaeologists dating back to Roman times[3].

Romans writers referred to people of black African ancestry as Aethiopes, and it carried no social implication whatsoever[4]. No such thing as a black community existed, black Africans were not excluded from any profession and their descendants mixed freely with the local population. There was normally no stigma or bias against mixed-race relationships[5]; the case of the Ivory Bangle Lady comes to mind; she had a faint indication of mixed African and European ancestry. Slavery existed, and slaves were deeply stigmatized, however, a great majority of slaves were from European and Mediterranean populations[6]

SOURCES

  • Dr Rebecca Redfern. The Surprising Diversity of Roman London. Published on 1/07/18 by The Museum of London Docklands. Retrieved 6/03/19 https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/surprising-diversity-roman-london-docklands
  • Thompson, Lloyd (Sep 1993). “Roman Perceptions of Blacks.” Electronic Antiquity: Communicating the Classics. 1 (4): 1. Retrieved 6 March 2019.
  • https://www.bbc.com/bitesize/articles/z2dr4wx
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_African_immigrants_in_London#cite_note-The_African_Community_in_London-1
  • https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/surprising-diversity-roman-london-docklands
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museum_of_London
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_people_in_Ancient_Roman_history#cite_note-Thompson-6

CITATIONS

  1. Durham University: Drs Becky Gowland, Andrew Millard, Janet Montgomery, Darren Gröcke, Lindsay Powell, and Lucie Johnson. McMaster University: Prof. Hendrik Poinar and Dr Katherine Eaton. Pre-Construct Archaeology: Victoria Ridgeway. Museum of London Archaeology: Michael Marshall
  2. https://www.bbc.com/bitesize/articles/z2dr4wx
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museum_of_London
  4. Thompson, Lloyd (Sep 1993).
  5. Thompson, Lloyd (Sep 1993).
  6. Thompson, Lloyd (Sep 1993).

About the author

Oadeye

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