How did two Chinese skeletons find their way into a Roman cemetery in London?

Skeletons found in a Roman cemetery have revealed that two of the people buried there between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD had Asian ancestry and were possibly from China. Photo / Museum of London
Skeletons found in a Roman cemetery have revealed that two of the people buried there between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD had Asian ancestry and were possibly from China. Photo / Museum of London

They were two powerful, ancient empires separated by more than 5,000 miles of imposing mountain ranges, barren desert and exposed steppe grasslands.

Yet a collection of seemingly unremarkable bones discovered in a Roman cemetery in London has provided new insights into the links between the Roman Empire and Imperial China.

Analysis has revealed that two skeletons dating from between the 2nd and 4th Century AD unearthed at the site in the city's Southwark area may have been Chinese.

The findings promise to rewrite the history of the Romans as it suggests these two great empires had far greater connections than previously believed.

While it is known that there was extensive trade between China and ancient Rome along what became known as the Silk Road, the two empires are thought to have viewed each other warily.

Accounts from the time suggest the Chinese were curious about the 'tall and virtuous' people of Rome, while the Romans found their rivals in the east mysterious but valued their silk cloth.

Despite the trade between the empires, however, only one person of Asian ancestry has ever been found on sites dating back to the Roman Empire - an adult man unearthed at Vagnari in Italy.

But now research led by the Museum of London has revealed two more individuals of Asian ancestry, buried among the remains of other citizens of ancient Londinium.

According to the Times, while experts have not been able to identify their exact origins, it is likely these people had come from China.

Writing in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Dr Rebecca Redfern, an archaeologist at the Museum of London, said how they ended up there is a mystery.

She and her colleagues said: 'The expansion of the Roman Empire across most of western Europe and the Mediterranean, led to the assimilation and movement of many ethnically and geographically diverse communities.

Romes links with China

They were arguably the two most powerful civilisations of the time.

The Roman conquest of Egypt in 30BC saw trade with China flourish.

While the Silk Road trade route had been delivering cloth, spices and other luxuries to the west for centuries before, the new wealth and fashions of the Roman brought unprecedented demand.

Much of this trade was initially done through Greece and India, but later also through the Parthian Empire.

The Roman Senate, however, saw this trade as a threat on both economic and moral grounds.

Senica the Younger described how silk cloth appeared to have a corrupting influence on the bodies of women and said the material did not 'hide the body, nor even one's decency'.

- Daily Mail

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