A Long Way from Home: Diaspora Communities in Roman Britain

Hella Eckardt, Gundula Müldner, Mary Lewis, 2012

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University of Reading

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Hella Eckardt, Gundula Müldner, Mary Lewis (2012) A Long Way from Home: Diaspora Communities in Roman Britain [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor] https://doi.org/10.5284/1000405


This project explored the cultural and biological experience of immigrant communities in Roman Britain. It has long been known from epigraphic and historical sources that Britain was home to a wide range of immigrants during the Roman period, with most of the evidence referring to imperial officials and military personnel. Using a range of scientific techniques, we have identified possible migrants in the burial record of Roman Britain.

Project illustration

Evidence for diaspora communities was analysed through an innovative combination of material culture, skeletal and isotope research. We selected a range of sites (mainly York, where there is historical and archaeological evidence for African individuals, but also Poundbury Camp (Dorset), Catterick (Yorkshire), Gloucester and Lankhills (Winchester)) for this study. In terms of methodology, we employ osteological/forensic methods to assess ancestry based on skeletal traits, and isotope analysis to assess geographic origins (oxygen and strontium) and diet (carbon and nitrogen). Further osteological work focused on the health of the populations examined. Our results show that a significant number of individuals sampled can be classed as non-local, with a smaller proportion coming from outside the UK. Contrary to popular perceptions, there are women and children amongst these migrants. In many cases the possible immigrants can not be identified from their burial rite, but there are also examples where grave goods (such as ivory bracelets) may relate to an individual's origin. In many societies migration can have a negative impact on health, but at Gloucester it could be shown that there were no significant differences between immigrants and locals in terms of health. While possible immigrants and locals in many cases consumed similar foods, our work has identified cases where migrants can be identified through the consumption of certain foods (in particular fish and millet).

All the results from this project have now been published, and the ADS resource provides references to these publications and details on the skulls and teeth examined. It is ordered by site, and then by type of data. An overview of the project work and a discussion of the wider theoretical issues addressed by our research can be found in:

Hella Eckardt, with C. Chenery, S. Leach, M. Lewis, G. Müldner and E. Nimmo 2010. A long way from home - diaspora communities in Roman Britain in: H. Eckardt (ed.) Roman diasporas - archaeological approaches to mobility and diversity in the Roman Empire. JRA Suppl. 78. JRA Suppl. Portsmouth: JRA, 99-130.

As part of our outreach programme, we worked with the archaeological illustrator Aaron Watson (http://www.monumental.uk.com/), who produced stunning reconstruction images, some of which will be used by the Yorkshire Museum in their new exhibition on the People of Roman York (http://www.yorkshiremuseum.org.uk/Page/Index.aspx). We also collaborated with Caroline Lawrence, the famous children's' author (http://www.romanmysteries.com/pages/50-Home_Page) to produce a series of short stories to be used by the Yorkshire Museum.

Additional outputs

In 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 and illustrated by Aaron Watson.

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.