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A new look at Roman Britain

A research project led by the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading shows just how diverse the population was at that time — yes, partly due to military migration, but also because of imperial administration, intermarriage, trade and slavery.

The initial work was funded by the AHRC Diasporas, Migration and Identity programme, and was led by Dr Hella Eckardt, Dr Mary Lewis and Dr Gundula Müldner, along with two post-doctoral research assistants, osteologist Stephany Leach specialising in osteology and isotope analyst Carolyn Chenery.

They found that not just men but also women and children moved across the Roman Empire — and that the relationship between burial rites, grave goods and geographic origin is much more complicated than previous research had suggested.

“Together, we targeted a number of sites in Roman Britain where there was evidence of diversity — where people had suggested, ‘These graves look unusual, and perhaps the people buried with these unusual objects are from, let’s say, areas near the Danube,’ for example, or where there had been a suggestion that they were north African,” explains Eckardt. “Then we tried to systematically test that.”

Using skeletons in five Romano-British cemeteries — York, Catterick, Gloucester, Dorchester (Poundbury) and Winchester (Lankhills), dated to between the second and fourth century AD — they looked at the artefacts found with the graves,.

“If you have artefacts that are very much outside their normal distribution area, then you might say, 'OK, this could be something that’s been traded,' or it could be something that a person’s brought with them,” says Eckardt.

With isotope analysis, the researchers extracted the oxygen and strontium 'signatures' – chemical compositions — from skeletons' tooth enamel, and compared it to the likely levels in the local area by taking samples from plants and ground water.

“The people who look like they have the same signature are most likely local,” says Eckardt, “and then we focus on the outliers — we look at who looks really different.” Such outliers can come from colder or warmer areas, or be defined by an unusual dietary signature (reflected in carbon and nitrogen isotope signatures).

Often a combination of results is revealing — as with the so-called Ivory Bangle Lady from Roman York.

“She is an individual where it’s a very rich grave — she has very exotic and high-status grave goods,” says Eckardt. “Her isotope signature is not that unusual but on the basis of her skull shape our osteologist suggested that she might be mixed race.”

The Ivory Bangle Lady is now the focal point of an exhibition produced in collaboration with the Yorkshire Museum, and also takes a starring role in a website aimed at Key Stage 2 pupils to support their national curriculum work on the Romans. Children can choose to excavate the graves of four characters to see what they can 'dig up', or find out about them via a short story written by best-selling author Caroline Lawrence and illustrated by Aaron Watson.

This was also funded by the AHRC through their Follow-on Fund, and the aim was to combat the myth so often found in teaching resources that 'the Romans' were all men, and typically Italian-looking men at that.

“That’s the sort of message that primary school children are getting, but it’s not the message that academia is producing,” says Eckardt. “Our work is new in that it can demonstrate this diversity. We can say, ‘OK, in somewhere like Roman York we’ve got people who come from somewhere much colder and continental, you’ve got people who come from somewhere warmer, you’ve got people from north Africa.’ That is new, but we’ve known for centuries from inscriptions that there were all sorts of people in Roman Britain – yet the schoolchildren are just shown images of these soldiers, and there are no women, there are no children, there’s no awareness of that.”

The team worked with Vastiana Belfon of the Runnymede Trust, a race equality charity, to create the website, and also liaised closely with young people to find out what they wanted from online resources.

“We went to a primary school and talked to them about Roman Britain,” says Belfon. “They are fascinated by Roman Britain, but we weren't absolutely sure of what aspects they'd be interested in, and I wasn't absolutely sure as to the language I'd have to use to pitch it at them.

“One of the things that became very clear to me was that they probably knew an awful lot more than I did. It was obvious that some of them had gone on further than what they were learning in school to do their own research and used websites outside of school, and they knew all kind of things in amazing detail. It also became quite obvious that we weren't to patronise them, which I thought was really, really important.”

The website offers videos alongside audio descriptions as well as text, meaning that visitors can click and hear from the research team themselves. It also means that different levels of knowledge and ability in one classroom can be catered for just by this single resource.

And what's even more exciting is that this could be a developing resource — with advances in technology, even more information about the diversity of the Roman Empire could be uncovered.

“With new methods you can extract more knowledge,” says Eckardt. “In a way, that's what we did with these skeletons. We didn't excavate them, but we analysed them using new techniques. It's really something where the results are continuously developing.”

For further information, please go to: www.reading.ac.uk/archaeology/research/Projects/arch-HE-Diaspora.aspx

Website for schools


Article by Carrie Dunn.

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