How diverse was Roman Britain? For a long time, the mainstream perception was of a homogeneously European population of ethnic Brits and Romans; but we now know that Roman Britain was a multicultural society which included citizens from Africa and the Middle East. These findings have been welcomed and scorned in equal measure, with many still mistakenly believing that it is anachronistic and historically inaccurate to portray non-European people in art and media about the past.
Some of the most important work in this area has come from the field of bioarchaeology, a type of archaeology which combines a scientific analysis of human remains with the contextual study of the individual’s historical situation in order to learn about their life. Modern techniques allow us to study things such as diet, health, background, and physical appearance, all by analysing their remains. Using data from skeletons in this manner gives us a more accurate picture of the social landscape than would be gained by relying on things such as writings and inscriptions, which may skew our perceptions towards certain demographics such as men or the wealthy.
Bioarchaeology has also helped to challenge some of the assumptions of traditional archaeology. For example when the grave of a 14-year-old girl buried in Southwark was uncovered and was found to contain rare items connected to Africa such as an ivory knife shaped like a leopard, it was suggested that she came from Carthage. However, forensic study showed that she was actually of European ancestry and had grown up in the southern Mediterranean. Hence, these studies have supplemented our knowledge of the past in crucial ways and have helped offset our overreliance on artefacts. In cases where remains are found without a name or possessions, bioarchaeology is the only way to find out about their life and therefore to get an accurate picture of the population. Such methods have enabled us to prove that people of black African descent did indeed live in London throughout the Roman period.
Applicants for History, Archaeology, Anthropology, or Classics might like to consider the impact of these new scientific techniques on our knowledge past civilizations. They should think about how our perceptions of the past might be influenced by the data available to us. How can we be more objective in our study?