Did Chinese live in Roman London?
One of the latest discoveries from Roman London has just hit the news. "Chinese lived in Roman London" is the message (or "How did two Chinese skeletons find their way into a Roman Cemetery in London?" to quote the Daily Mail). Professional archaeologists have been a lot more cautious. But what is the truth about the two Chinese skeletons in ancient London ?
Well, it is absolutely obvious that Rome and Roman Britain were much more multi-cultural/multi-ethnic societies than has often been assumed. You can see exactly that in some of the epitaphs that survive (my favourite is put up to his wife near Hadrian's Wall by "Barates from Palmyra"). But there is increasing evidence from skeletal remains of a very wide diaspora ending up in Roman Britain. You find a sub-saharan ancestry for the so-called "Bangle lady" in York and "Beachy Head Woman" from East Dean; and that ancestry is largely judged from the shape of the skull. But recent science has gone a bit further.
New science can examine the teeth of ancient skeletons, and can work out something about the environment in which the person grew up while their adult teeth were forming in the jaw. It is still a bit rough and ready, but it is already possible to say, for example, that the dead person spent their early years in a climate much warmer than the one in which they died.
So where does it leave these "Chinese" in Roman London?
Well, we have two skeletons whose skull formation suggests a far eastern ancestry. That is based simply on the shape of the skull, and it is a reasonaable but not fail-safe diagnostic. Their teeth composition strongly suggests that they had grown up somewhere warmer than Britain. None of this means that they came directly from China. There were all kinds of trading connections between Rome and China: that is where Roman silk came from, and Chinese sources seem to have called Rome "greater China". But the connections were as much indirect as direct. And the likely story is that if the skull morphology is correct (big "if") then these people were the grandchildren or great grandchildren of someone with some connection by marriage to China some way back, and part of a diaspora over generations.
That is to say, in other words , they attest to the multicultural world of the Roman empire. But they do not mean that these are a pair of people who made their way, in one generation, from China to Rome.
If you want a clear and expert description on the science and its limitations, then try what Kristina Killgrove has to say here.