Migration in Roman Britain

This month’s blog is by Dr Hella Eckardt of the University of Reading. She sets out to provide answers to the question ‘how do we know there were migrants living in Roman Britain?’

The Roman part of the new animation of “How migration shaped Britain” was based on recent research at the University of Reading, which tried to establish where some of the people buried in Romano-British towns came from.

Written sources and stone inscriptions provide an excellent snapshot of some very exotic individuals indeed. Have a look at the tombstone of Regina set up by her husband Barates, who originally came from Palmyra in Syria and the tombstone of ‘Victor the Moor’, who was the freedman of a cavalry man in a Spanish unit (https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/hadrians-wall/0/steps/5121).

However, there are relatively few inscriptions from Roman Britain – this could be due to the absence of suitable stone in many regions, and more importantly to the fact that only a few people (mainly soldiers) thought it was important to set up such inscriptions. Even fewer mention their origin in an inscription – just as today a tombstone might not necessarily say where a person was born.

Examining skeletons from the Roman period is therefore a useful way of finding out more about origin. Most of our skeletons come from the later Roman period, when inhumation was common; this shows that migration occurred not just at the point of conquest but for many centuries afterwards. Archaeologists employ four main techniques:

1) A grave might have unusual or exotic grave goods or the burial rite may be unusual. Unusual jewellery could indicate that the person buried with it obtained it at a distant location, or the objects could have been traded. Unusual burial rites, such as the burial of girls and women with multiple bracelets on their left arm is also sometimes thought to indicate that they come from outside of Britain, even if the objects themselves were made in Britain. A good example of this is the grave of a little girl from Winchester.

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2) Osteologists (archaeologists specialising in the analysis of human remains) can measure and analyse the skull shape to distinguish between people of Caucasian and African ancestry. This technique has identified a number of African individuals at Roman York, most famously the so-called Ivory Bangle Lady. This is a woman of African descent buried with very high status grave goods. More recently the technique has been used to identify Africans at Beachy Head and London.

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3) Archaeological scientists use the chemical signatures preserved in tooth enamel to establish whether individuals are likely to have been local to the place where they were buried, or come from further afield. The two isotopes most commonly used are Oxygen (reflecting climate) and strontium (reflecting geology); when the chemical signatures of individuals from a given place are plotted, incomers from either more coastal/hotter or from colder/more continental areas can be identified. Lead isotopes can also be helpful, as we can assume that people growing up in Britain accidentally consumed/were slightly poisoned by British lead ore – and anyone with a radically different lead signature must therefore be a migrant. Finally, we can use carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios to find out about ancient diets – and people who have consumed a lot of millett (a cereal that was not grown for human consumption within the Empire) are likely to have come from beyond the frontiers.

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4) Ancient DNA analysis (by the University of Dublin) can identify which modern populations an ancient individual is most closely related to. Recent work on the so-called ‘headless Romans’ from York showed that while six have affinities with modern Welsh populations (which are probably close to ‘Celtic’ British populations) one individual, who also had a very unusual isotope signature is most closely related to people in modern Syria. As the name suggests, many of the men in this unusual cemetery were beheaded – they may have been soldiers or gladiators and were treated the same way in death despite their wildly different origins.

To find out more about Roman migrants to Britain, go to this website and ‘excavate’ the African woman from York – by clicking on the skeleton and artefacts:


You can also learn more about the girls from Winchester with the unusual grave goods here:


Further reading:

Eckardt, H. (ed.) 2010. Roman diasporas: archaeological approaches to mobility and diversity in the Roman Empire. JRA Suppl. 78. Portsmouth, Rhode Island: JRA.

Leach, S., Eckardt, H. , C. Chenery, G. Müldner & M. Lewis 2010. A ‘lady’ of York: migration, ethnicity and identity in Roman York. Antiquity 84, 131-145.

Martiniano et al 2016 Genomic signals of migration and continuity in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons. Nature Communications 7, 10326

Müldner, G., Chenery C., Eckardt, H. 2011. ‘The Headless Romans’: Multi-isotope investigations of an unusual burial ground from Roman Britain. Journal of Archaeological Science 38, 280-290.