London Was Always A Multicultural City, Scientists Confirm

James Drury
By James Drury Last edited 29 months ago
London Was Always A Multicultural City, Scientists Confirm
The skeleton of the Harper Road woman. (c) Museum of London

London has been a multicultural city since its earliest days as a Roman city, according to new cutting-edge DNA research just published by the Museum of London.

Scientists examined four skeletons, looking at sex chromosomes, evidence for disease, travel and diet, and bioarchaeological evidence for health as well as archaeological evidence about identity.

Caroline McDonald, Senior Curator of Roman London, said: "We have always understood that Roman London was a culturally diverse place and now science is giving us certainty. People born in Londinium lived alongside people from across the Roman Empire, exchanging ideas and cultures, much like the London we know today."

Remains the researchers studied included a man discovered at London Wall, with injuries to his skull that suggest he may have been killed nearby in Londinium’s amphitheatre before his head was dumped into an open pit. He was found to have had black hair and dark brown eyes, and was likely to have been born outside of Britain — with connections to eastern Europe and the Near East.

A more complicated picture emerges from looking at a Roman woman found buried at Harper Road (near today's Elephant and Castle) with high status grave goods. She was found to have male chromosomes, although her skeleton shows clear female characteristics. This, says the report, supports modern scientific thought that biological sex is a ‘spectrum’. She is likely to have been born in Britain, and her maternal ancestry shows links to northern Europe. She had dark brown hair and brown eyes, and suffered from gum disease.

A teenage girl found at Lant Street had blue eyes, and was discovered to have maternal ancestry deriving from southern-eastern Europe and west Eurasia. However stable isotope evidence shows that she was born in north Africa.

A man, discovered at Mansell Street in the City, was born in London though his maternal ancestry shows links to Europe or north Africa. He suffered from two rare conditions, Paget’s disease and Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis.

The four Roman skeletons used for analysis will form a small, new display at the Museum of London, which opens on 27 November and is free to visit.

Last Updated 25 November 2015

MattFromLondonist

I didn't fully understand this press release - how can four skeletons prove the city was multicultural? I mean, undoubtedly it was multicultural, given the demographics of cities elsewhere in the Roman Empire -- but you can't generalise a whole city from just four examples, which, for all we know, were cherrypicked in the first place. That said, it's fascinating that we can understand so much about the lives and deaths of these early Londoners from just their DNA and bones, and I look forward to the mini-exhibition.