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Improving public understanding of social diversity in Roman Britain

Digital reconstruction
Digital reconstruction. Copyright: University of Reading

Immigrant communities and mixed-race ancestry are nothing new. Research at the University of Reading has challenged popular perceptions of the population in Roman Britain and - through museum exhibitions, a website aimed at school children, and national and international news articles - is improving awareness of ethnic diversity.

For the first time this research demonstrated scientifically that later Romano-British populations were much more diverse than previously thought, with up to a third of individuals classified as non-local. Archaeologists used isotope analysis (oxygen and strontium signatures preserved in tooth enamel) to distinguish between locals and incomers. Migrant populations were shown to include women and children, challenging the popular perception that it was mainly adult males, who were either soldiers or administrators, who moved across the Roman Empire.

Award Information

AHRC ref: AH/E508758/1
Discipline: Archaeology
Funding opportunity: Research Grant
Areas of Impact: Key Area/s of Impact Communities; Culture and Heritage; Museums and collectyions; Stimulating debate and shifting perceptions; Supportig education
Lead RO: University of Reading
Region: South East

Scientific studies of burial remains and artefacts have highlighted mixed-race individuals, second-generation migrants and the diverse origins of these migrants. One study - known as the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ - shows that a mixed-race woman was buried in York with rich exotic and local artefacts. Analysis of skull shapes showed that she was of second generation African descent, as well as having a high social status. The case of the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ is now used for school workshops, is featured in a video, and as a result of a 2012 collaboration by the project’s Research Assistant and the Yorkshire Museum is the subject of interactive tweets, “I tweet dead people”.

As a result of this project, the considerable diversity of people living in Romano-British towns has been highlighted.  Researchers also studied the ways in which immigrant and local communities may have differed, examining their diet, health, burial rites and personal adornment.  Examination of their diets in particular showed that some individuals had consumed the grain millet (a crop not grown in Roman Britain), and/or significant amounts of fish (the indigenous populations of Britain did not consume seafoods, but fish and oysters became a high status food in the Roman period).

The research has directly contributed to the redesign of the ‘People of Roman York’ gallery at the Yorkshire Museum, as part of a complete refurbishment in 2010. The museum is visited by up to 94,000 people each year, and the gallery display features the skulls, facial reconstructions and ‘life-stories’ of six individuals studied by the research team to highlight the diversity of the Roman population. The curator of the museum said of the research that “…the museum wanted to reconstruct these people in a way which you and I today would feel a genuine affinity with….The vision has resulted in the creation of a life-size interactive presentation where the characters were in fact real people telling their story through time.”

Working with the children’s author Caroline Lawrence the project also produced an interactive website for schoolchildren and teachers: www.romansrevealed.com. The website features individuals from the research project and allows children to explore questions of identity and diversity. See also the Roman Mysteries website.

For more information on the project visit: www.reading.ac.uk/archaeology/research/Projects/arch-HE-Diaspora.aspx

Gateway to Research Project Links: A long way from home - diaspora communities in Roman Britain, Jan 07 - Jan 09

Diasporas, Migration and Identities was previously an AHRC Theme.