Diversity in Britain 300 AD
17 September 2009, by Sara Coelho
Winchester was a diverse and multicultural community in late Roman times: about a quarter of the city's inhabitants were newcomers, some of them migrants from south and central Europe, according to new data from an archaeological dig.
Archaeologists have been studying the Lankhills Roman cemetery in Winchester since the 1970s, using artefacts and burial features such as body position to infer ethnic background. Earlier work suggested that some individuals were originally from the Roman province of Pannonia, in the Danube region of central Europe, based on the type of ornaments buried with the bodies.
Dr Gundula Müldner and her team from the University of Reading combined the traditional approach with analysis of isotope ratios - the proportion between different types of atoms of the same chemical element - to learn more about the geographical origins of the people buried in Winchester, known to the Romans as Venta Belgarum.
'This is similar to what is happening in today's globalised world, people are moving a lot and adopting different customs all the time.'
Dr Gundula Müldner
University of Reading
'Isotopes are extremely useful for archaeology,' says Müldner, lead author of the report. 'Artefacts tells us about a person's cultural background, which can change throughout life. Isotopes, on the other hand, gives us the biological identity and cannot be changed.'
Müldner and colleagues sampled the tooth enamel of 40 individuals laid to rest at the Lankhills cemetery in the late Roman period, between 200 and 400 AD.
'Winchester is an unusual cemetery for Roman Britain,' says Müldner, due to the number of graves with unusual bracelets and other artefacts that suggest foreign origin. The team sampled the exotic graves, 'but we took great care to also include typical Romano-British burials that appear to be of local individuals,' she adds.
Multicultural Britain in the third century AD
The samples were sent to the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory in Nottingham and analysed for oxygen and strontium isotope ratios. The oxygen isotopes in tooth enamel come from drinking water and give clues about the temperature and other climatic parameters of the area an individual lived at the time their teeth formed in childhood. Strontium isotopes are ingested with solid and liquid foods and their ratio depends on a region's type of rocks.
Burial site evidence suggested that 20 individuals were of local origin, whereas eight were classified as 'Pannonian' by previous research and 12 had unusual graves that were not attributed to a specific cultural background.
The isotope analyses revealed that at least a quarter of the individuals buried at Lankhills were immigrants and grew up elsewhere in the UK and in continental Europe.
But the findings tell a complex story between archaeological and isotope analyses. Some individuals with local burial features have higher strontium and lower oxygen isotope ratios than typical for the Winchester area - it seems likely that they were originally from elsewhere in Britain or continental Europe.
Another four individuals, thought to be foreigners from Pannonia due to their burial rites have local isotope ratios, were probably raised in the Winchester area and certainly not in Central Europe, argue the authors in the report published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science. 'They might have chosen to be buried with these objects because they felt an affinity to them or perhaps because they were second generation migrants,' says Müldner.
'The findings don't mean that archaeological interpretations are wrong,' she adds. 'Our results mean that ethnicity is constructed throughout life and not simply determined by where you were born.'
'People might become part of another community and adopt new cultural traditions by intermarriage, for instance,' explains Müldner. 'This is similar to what is happening in today's globalised world: people are moving a lot and adopting different customs all the time.'
Eckardt, H., Chenery, C., Booth, P., Evans, J.A., Lamb, A., Müldner., G. Oxygen and Strontium Isotope Evidence for Mobility in Roman Winchester, Journal of Archaeological Science (2009), doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.09.010
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