London has been ethnically diverse since its foundation, with some of its earliest residents coming from other continents. Nevertheless, the discovery of bones thought to be of Chinese origin in a Roman grave in Southwark could rewrite ideas about interaction between the era's two most powerful empires. However, doubt has already been cast on the reliability of the claims.
In the Journal of Archaeological Science a team led by Dr Rebecca Redfern of the Museum of London report on a study of the ancestry and diets of 22 people buried in a Roman cemetery between 100 and 300 CE. Four of the skeletons appear to have had African ancestry, but two came from even further afield.
“This is the first time in Roman Britain we have identified people with Asian ancestry,” Redfern told the BBC. “They would be the third or fourth people from the empire as a whole.”
The conclusion was based on attempts to reconstruct the facial features of bones found at the Lant Street graveyard. Redfern added that nothing is known about whether they belonged to soldiers, merchants, or slaves.
Analysis of dental enamel showed that the two individuals were not raised on British food and water, as they lack the distinctive oxygen isotope fingerprint of those who grew up there. So far it has not been possible to work out where they were born, though.
Evidence of loose connections between the Roman and Han empires have been raised before, although much is controversial. However, visitors to a far off land are more likely to seek out the capital than what was then a remote and obscure corner. The presence of a person with east-Asian ancestry in Britain suggests either such visitors were much more common than we thought, or a curious chain of events brought them somewhere unexpected.
However, other archaeologists have expressed caution about reading too much into Redfern's results. No DNA has yet been successfully analyzed from the skeletons; conclusions about their ethnic background are based on features such as skull and tooth shapes. Bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove has argued this isn't necessarily a reliable approach, even when the bones are in perfect condition. With many of the skeletons studied having been damaged in the almost 2,000 years since they were laid to rest, the circumstances are particularly open to question in this case.
Nevertheless, even if the individuals in question came from somewhere less exotic, Redfern leaves little doubt that London was then, as it is now, a city filled with people of diverse origins. The oxygen isotopes in 19 skeletons, and the nitrogen and carbon where these could be measured, suggest most of those buried at Southwark grew up somewhere beyond Britain.
The coincidence that China achieved a period of great unity and power at the same time as Rome controlled the entire Mediterranean, and much beyond, has led to speculation as to the extent of their interactions. If Redfern's claim turns out to be correct, we may get some answers.