British, Roman, or African? On race, ethnicity, and nationality

Posted on January 26, 2011

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The past was not full of homogeneous towns. People in the past were not uniform in their cultures, their sexualities, or their subjective experiences.

If I have one goal in my teaching– one goal in my writing– it would be to get that point across, so that finding difference in past populations would be expected, and no longer a surprise.

But archaeology is dogged by a broader cultural belief in a simpler past, before globalization, before hybridity, before individuality. Reserving all that complexity for the present is a comforting way to reassure ourselves that we are really unprecedented; that there is a sharp break between now and everything that came before, even if we bicker about when “now” started, and who gets to be included in the present, who is relegated to the status of living representative of the past: “Stone Age tribes”, women and children, people of other biological populations.

All of this was brought to mind yet again by reporting of what really is a kind of neat archaeological discovery: one of the residents of a Roman British village on the Avon river at around 300 AD was of African descent.

Perhaps predictably, the Daily Mail lead on the story framed the finding as surprising:

You might think that African immigrants are a fairly recent addition to the British scene.

Why? The Roman empire extended across northern Africa; Roman legions recruited from across the empire; and trade throughout the empire surely was accompanied by movement of people from place to place.

In fact, the story quickly clarifies that the surprising thing isn’t that there were “African immigrants” in Roman Britain, but that

African immigrants lived far afield of major settlements, such as London and York, as early as the third or fourth century.

The Daily Mail quoted Stuart Palmer, described as the manager for the archaeological project, saying

“African skeletons have previously been found in large Romano-British towns like York, and African units are known to have formed part of the Hadrian’s Wall garrison, but we had no reason to expect any in Warwickshire, and certainly not in a community as small as Roman Stratford.”

So the actual story hear is that Roman Stratford is more cosmopolitan than previously known.

The Daily Mail says that “experts”, otherwise unnamed, think the remains are those of “a slave or a former Roman soldier”.  The BBC story identifies the bioarchaeologist as Malin Holst, of York Osteoarchaeology Ltd. Coverage in the Sunday Mercury, reprinted by Archaeology Daily News, gives more detail on the bioarchaeologist’s findings.

Analysis of the remains indicated the person was “of African descent and was probably in his 40s or 50s when he died”, “heavily-built and that the bones in his central spine showed he was used to carrying heavy loads”. There was “evidence of arthritis and a childhood plagued by disease or malnutrition”.

The Mercury report quotes Palmer again, saying

“He could, for instance, have been a merchant, although based on the evidence of the skeletal pathology it is probably more likely that he was a slave or an army veteran who retired to Stratford.”

All of which is not a bad interpretation. But another quote of Palmer’s goes to the heart of my unease with the way the Daily Mail framed the story:

“Currently there is no evidence to suggest whether he was born here, Africa or anywhere else”.

Although I would venture to say that the existence of his bones is evidence he was born somewhere, I think the addition of “anywhere else” hints at the possible frustration Palmer experienced in being asked to pinpoint where our man of African descent buried in Roman Stratford was really from. Because clearly, he wasn’t British.

The interfering screen here is our modern use of race as the determinative classification of identity. If this man was born in Africa, for at least some contemporary reporters, that makes him more exotic than if he was born in Germany. Both are possible origins for Romans in Britain, and it is not particularly useful to treat one of these exotic origin points as more different. For the Roman empire, citizens were citizens.

In Roman Britain, the interesting questions about this man’s status would have been precisely that: was he a citizen or a slave– a civil status, not racialized as it became as a consequence of the Atlantic slave trade?

And– why did he, if free, chose to live in bucolic Stratford?