A Lady of York: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain

By Leach, S.; Eckardt, H. et al. | Antiquity, March 2010 | Go to article overview

A Lady of York: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain


Leach, S., Eckardt, H., Chenery, C., Muldner, G., Lewis, M., Antiquity


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Introduction

The Roman conquest incorporated Britain into an empire that comprised Europe, North Africa and the Near and Middle East, resulting in the extensive voluntary and forced movement of people (Birley 1979; Mattingly 2006). Eboracum (York), founded in c. AD 71 and located in north-eastern England, was both a legionary fortress and civilian settlement, and functioned as one of the provincial capitals for much of the later Roman period (Ottaway 2004). The civilian settlement included the wives and families of the military personnel, and upon discharge, many soldiers simply continued to live where they had served (cf. Mann 1983). Both the impact of the military, and extended visits by the Tripolitania-born Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 208-211), and later Constantius I and Constantine the Great (AD 306), provide potential circumstances for immigration to York, and for the foundation of a multicultural and diverse community (cf. Hartley et al. 2006).

Epigraphy is a particularly useful source of evidence for the diversity of the Roman world, as demonstrated by Birley (1979) and Noy (2000). Inscriptions from York attest to the presence of Gauls, Italians and a possible Egyptian at York, although much of the epigraphic evidence is significantly earlier than the burial discussed here (Ottaway 2004). Artefactual evidence also suggests that 'the Roman north was a casmopolitan place with a great mixing of people from all over the empire' (Cool 2002: 42). For example, Swan (1992) argued for the presence of North Africans in York on the basis of braziers and other vessels typical of North African food-ways but made in local fabrics.

Previous studies of the physical remains of the people of Eboracum (Buxton 1935; Warwick 1968) suggested that the males exhibited heterogeneous craniomorphometric traits suggesting migration from a variety of geographic locales. However, both argued that the female population of Roman York was indigenous. In their view, the diversity noted in the female crania represented genetic admixture between local women and migrant males (Warwick 1968: 155). While the methods and ideological context of some early craniometric studies were suspect (Gould 1992), these are questions worthy of study, especially given advances in archaeological and forensic science in recent years. Such techniques can be combined fruitfully with recent theoretical approaches to the diversity of the Roman Empire (e.g. Mattingly 2006), in particular the lived reality of mixed communities. Diaspora theory (Lilley 2004; Cohen 2008) may provide a useful theoretical tool, as it examines how identities are created and maintained in communities dispersed amongst other peoples.

Forensic ancestry assessment and isotope analysis are relatively new techniques in archaeology but, despite the inevitable methodological issues, both have the potential to address questions of diversity, mobility and identity that are central to our understanding of the Roman Empire. A new research project at the University of Reading, UK, has begun to address these questions by examining skeletons from Roman urban centres such as Gloucester, York and Winchester, with initial results suggesting that up to 20 per cent of the sample can be defined as 'non-local' in the sense of coming from elsewhere in Britannia, with some individuals originating from elsewhere in the Empire (Chenery et al. 2009; Eckardt et al. 2009; Leach et al. 2009).

In some case studies, the integration of different kinds of evidence applied to a single individual allows us to enlarge interpretation, confront complexity and create biographical narratives (e.g. Wilkie 2003). To illustrate the potential of this approach, we have chosen to focus on one individual from Roman York - a female found with ivory bangles in a stone coffin at Sycamore Terrace, known as ST60.

'The ivory bangle lady'

In August 1901, a stone coffin was discovered near Sycamore Terrace, Bootham (Boynton 1902: 6), north of the River Ouse and south-west of the legionary fortress (Figure 1; RCHM Ebvracvm 1962; Ottaway 2004). …

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