Mysterious Chinese Skeletons Found In An Ancient Cemetery In England Could Rewrite Roman History

When children spend time in the pool, they often play a game of Marco Polo. “It” closes their eyes, cries out “Marco”, and tries to hear all the other players answering “Polo” to reveal themselves. With a lunge in the right direction, “It” tags another player and the game continues.

It’s amazing that children still play a game still that’s named after an Italian explorer who lived over 700 years ago. It’s really a testament to the impact Marco Polo had when he revealed the mysteries of China to Europe. It’s also probably a rather cheeky reference to some people’s suspicions that Marco Polo really had no clue where he was going and was simply flailing about.

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But what’s even more remarkable than Marco Polo introducing China to Europe seven centuries ago, is that China might have introduced itself to Europe even longer before that, almost two millennia ago. At least, that’s what a fascinating discovery in a place you’d least expect seems to show…

Analysis of skeletons found in a Roman cemetery in south London (pictured) have revealed that two of the people buried there between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD had Asian ancestry and were possibly from China. It provides new evidence of the links between the empires 
Analysis of skeletons found in a Roman cemetery in south London (pictured) have revealed that two of the people buried there between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD had Asian ancestry and were possibly from China. It provides new evidence of the links between the empires

China and Rome 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 remains were found at a Roman cemetery on Lant Street in Southwark (shown on map), which was once a suburb of the Roman settlement of Londinium
The remains were found at a Roman cemetery on Lant Street in Southwark (shown on map), which was once a suburb of the Roman settlement of Londinium

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 archaeologists excavating an ancient Roman cemetery in modern-day London have uncovered two more individuals of Asian ancestry, buried among the remains of other citizens of ancient Londinium.

The cemetery was for ordinary citizens, which seems to say that these two people were living and working in the city as ordinary citizens, not as visiting diplomats. And they weren’t treated as outsiders because they were buried alongside Roman citizens.

Londinium was the centre of the Roman empire in Britain, but across the river to its south was a small suburban area that would later become Southwark

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.

‘Its power and wealth meant that it also had trade connections for raw materials and products, such as silk throughout Europe, Africa and also to the East, including India and China.

‘Many people traveled, often vast distances, for trade or because of their occupation, for example in the military, or their social status, for example if they were enslaved.’

Archaeologists unearthed around 22 skeletons at the site in Lant Street, Southwark (pictured)
Archaeologists unearthed around 22 skeletons at the site in Lant Street, Southwark (pictured)
Researchers examined the morphology of the skulls (pictured) found in the cemetery to work out their ancestry while isotope analysis of the teeth revealed details about their diet and where they grew up
Researchers examined the morphology of the skulls (pictured) found in the cemetery to work out their ancestry while isotope analysis of the teeth revealed details about their diet and where they grew up

At the time when the people are thought to have lived, the Roman Empire was at its peak before it split into two halves. China was in the hands of the Han Dynasty, considered to be the most prolific period of cultural and technological advance in the ancient empire.

Writing in the journal, Dr Redfern said: ‘It may well be that these individuals were themselves or were descended from enslaved people originating from Asia, as there were slave-trade connections between India and China, and India and Rome.’

This discovery also raises the intriguing idea that ancient London was more cosmopolitan, and had many immigrants, much, much longer before anyone imagined. Do you think it’s possible that London was a cultural melting pot that long ago?

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Archaeologist Rebecca Redfern (pictured right) and her colleagues say Londinium may have had a far more flourishing community of immigrants than previously believed. Among the skeletons were those from north Africa, including a young girl (pictured left)

Read More: A meeting of two ancient empires: How did two Chinese skeletons find their way into a Roman cemetery in London?

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