Chinese skeletons found in a Roman cemetery promise to rewrite history

Present-day London is one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, attracting tourists and immigrants from around the globe. Scientific examination of skeletons excavated from an ancient Roman graveyard in the city, however, suggests that even 2,000 years ago the British capital was attracting visitors from as far away as China.

According to the findings published in the October issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science, Roman Britain may have been more diverse—and ties between two of the ancient world’s greatest empires even stronger—than previously thought.

Researchers examined 22 sets of human remains dating from between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. that were unearthed from an ancient Roman graveyard in the present-day London borough of Southwark, south of the River Thames. Using a method similar to that employed by forensic anthropologists, the research team studied the shape of the skulls of the deceased. They examined carbon and nitrogen isotopes taken from their bones along with oxygen isotopes extracted from their teeth. After studying the chemical composition of the dental enamel samples, which offers information about what a person ate and drank, and comparing various morphological features to modern populations, the scientists concluded that people who were not born and raised in the Roman city of Londinium were among those buried in the ancient graveyard.

Another skeleton recovered from the cemetery in Southwark.

The research team found that five of those buried were from the Mediterranean and four from Africa, including one teenage girl discovered with an ivory folding knife carved in the shape of a leopard, similar to those linked to Carthage. The girl’s dental enamel suggests she grew up in north Africa and was brought to Londinium after her childhood, perhaps as a slave captured in one of the wars between the Roman Empire and Carthage.

Most intriguing was the discovery that two of those buried in the Roman cemetery may have been of Asian origin, most likely from China. Only once before—at a site in Vagnari, Italy—has a person of possible Chinese ancestry been found at an ancient Roman site. “This is absolutely phenomenal,” Rebecca Redfern, curator of human osteology at the Museum of London and co-author of the article in the Journal of Archaeological Science, told BBC Radio. “This is the first time in Roman Britain that we’ve identified people with Asian ancestry.”

If confirmed, the discovery suggests that the immigrant community in Londinium may have been more robust than previously believed. “The expansion of the Roman Empire across most of western Europe and the Mediterranean led to the assimilation and movement of many ethnically and geographically diverse communities,” the research team wrote in the journal article. “Many people travelled, often vast distances, for trade or because of their occupation, for example in the military, or their social status, for example if they were enslaved.”

The findings also mean that commercial links between the Roman Empire and Imperial China may have been deeper than previously thought. During the time of the burials, the Roman Empire was at its peak and the Han Dynasty was experiencing a prolific period in culture and technology. It is known that the two ancient powers traded extensively along the Silk Road after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C. as well as in the region around the Mediterranean Sea. However, the presence of Chinese men in Londinium suggests the trade lanes may have extended even further to the outer edge of the Roman Empire.

How and why the Chinese men ended up in Londinium remains a mystery. As Redfern pointed out to the BBC, the ancient city was hardly the same draw that it is today. “At this point in time Britain is on the very margins of the Roman Empire. It isn’t a very glamorous or exciting place that people actually want to visit, so trying to find a reason for them to come is really quite difficult.”

The research team has several theories as to what could have caused the Chinese men to have ended up in Roman Britain. “They may have been members of the military. They could have been merchants. They could have been economic migrants. They could have been enslaved people,” Redfern said. It is hoped that more rigorous DNA testing of the skeletons will offer more information to allow scientists to answer some of the lingering questions.

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