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Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire

Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire

Edited by Hella Eckardt (JRA Suppl. 78). Pp. 246, figs. 50. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Portsmouth, R.I. 2010. $87. ISBN 978-1-887829-78-6 (cloth).

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Migration and diaspora have been much-debated themes in archaeological and historical research. Hitherto, arguments have tended to hinge on scarce literary references, epigraphic evidence (whose representativeness of society at large is uncertain), and cultural assumptions related to the introductions and use of items of material culture. In both qualitative and quantitative terms, the evidence for migration has tended to be hotly contested. However, in the last decade, new scientific techniques have been refined to the point where discussion can be taken forward once again. This collection of papers draws together some of the most significant recent work on migration and diasporic dispersal in the Roman empire and will be a key point of reference for the next phase of investigation of these important themes.

Eckardt organized the workshop from which the present volume has evolved as part of a research project on diaspora communities in Roman Britain that she directed at the University of Reading. A number of additional papers were commissioned from specialists to expand the thematic range of contributions. The result presents the “state of the art,” both in terms of new scientific techniques (notably isoptic evidence and mtDNA studies) and more traditional studies based on epigraphy and artifactual studies. The book will have an impact well beyond Romano-British studies, not least because there are several papers dealing with Rome and Italy, but equally because the themes are broadly applicable to any part of the Roman empire.

To my regret, I was unable at short notice to attend the workshop or to contribute an invited paper to the volume, but that has opened up the possibility for me to offer some comments as reviewer. In my 2006 book on Britain in the Roman empire (An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire [London and New York]), a recurring theme was the importance of incomers in the province and the extent to which these individuals created distinctive communal identities to differentiate themselves from local Britons. It is hard to avoid the fact that the Roman period was marked by high levels of interregional movement and fluid identity transformations. The papers in this volume offer ample support for such views but also reveal evidence of considerable complexity. Not everyone who dressed and behaved like a foreigner was necessarily an incomer in the dynamic social groupings that emerged. The scientific analyses now available (and this volume offers excellent explanations of the main techniques for nonscientists) allow much greater certainty than has ever been possible before of who was an incomer at a given location and about how far they had traveled spatially and culturally.

One of the strengths of the collection is that it does not focus solely on one approach, but offers a range of up-to-date studies of how different sorts of evidence can be used in debating migration. The keystone of the book is the chapter authored by Eckardt et al., which perhaps ought to have been the lead-off paper, rather than coming halfway through. The extended discussion of definitions of diaspora and migration and the theoretical underpinnings of the debate is a fundamental contribution (99–109), complemented by a succinct and clear summary of the methodologies employed (109–13) and a synthesis of the Reading project’s results (113–30). The combination of forensic examination of skulls to assess ancestry and isotopic analyses (both strontium and oxygen) were applied at a several sites and with impressive results. Coupled with more detailed scientific studies published elsewhere, the Reading team has set down a strong marker for how this sort of work ought to be pursued. Other papers that specifically engage with isotopic data are those by Killgrove (on two cemeteries in or near Rome [157–74]) and Prowse, Barta, von Hunnius, and Small (who used DNA and isotopic markers to look at origins and kinship in the South Italian cemetery of Vagnari [175–97]). Montgomery, Evans, Chenery, Pashley, and Killgrove (199–226) present another scientific approach involving the study of lead concentration in teeth enamel, which also shows potential to highlight immigrants (or nonlocals) in Britain. A paper by Gowland and Garnsey (131–56) suggests that two skeletal markers of health stress in Rome and Italy, enamel hypoplasia and cribra orbitalia, may be linked in part at least to an increasing prevalence of malaria. Though a variety of conditions and deficiencies can contribute to these effects on the teeth and skeleton, they are much less prevalent in a sample of skeletons analyzed from Roman Britain than from the Mediterranean. My own research on migration in the central Sahara certainly supports the view that enamel hypoplasia and cribra orbitalia are not uncommon in malarial environments, and my team has also been thinking about a connection.

The remaining chapters of the book focus on other sorts of evidence for detecting foreigners, starting with a helpful summary of epigraphic evidence for immigrants at Rome and in Britain by Noy (13–26). The problem with the epigraphic evidence is that there was an important element of self-selection within society about who engaged with the epigraphic habit. It is clear, for instance, that inscribed tombstones were very rarely adopted in Britain outside the military community. In the urban community, foreigners were evidently much more likely than native Britons to adopt the practice, and, coupled with the overall small sample size, it would be hazardous to draw large conclusions on the scale of immigration from the epigraphic data alone. Three papers engage explicitly with attempts to identify foreigners from material culture and behavioral markers. Cool (27–44) focuses on funerary contexts from Roman Britain, using the example of the Lankhills cemetery from Winchester, with a rich assemblage of foreign grave goods in Late Roman burials. The parallel work on the isotopic signatures at this cemetery offers some support for assumptions about distinctive crossbow brooches and international belt fittings relating to immigrants, but Cool is rightly cautious about aligning ethnicity with cultural behaviors and identity groups. Membership of the group who presented themselves outwardly as immigrants at Winchester appears to have been more inclusive of a range of people (as the study by Eckardt et al. also emphasized [119–20]). Pearce, in a wide-ranging review of funerary practice and identity (79–98) also takes a skeptical view of the feasibility of ascribing ethnic identities based on burial practices and grave assemblages alone. Fulford (67–78) reviews recent attempts to define ethnic identity through the production and use of particular pots at Romano-British sites. The late Vivien Swan had identified the presence of African troops at York and other sites in northern Britain in the Severan period on the basis of the introduction of new pottery styles, very similar to North African vessels. Fulford acknowledges the similarities between the wares and is open to the possibility of mobile potters (whether African or trained in Mediterranean traditions, which were quite influenced by African ceramics in this period). However, he is much more cautious about the ethnic association made with the consumers of these pots in Britain.

The final two chapters offer different perspectives on the phenomenon of migration, reflecting on the darker side of this process. Webster’s contribution deals with comparative perspectives on the forced migrations of slaves in the Roman empire and more recent ages (45–65). She cites a figure of 100 million people being enslaved across the time span of the Roman empire, reminding us that diasporas in any time period may not be voluntary and that such forced migrations make victims of unwilling participants. Hingley offers some interesting reflections on how immigrants have often been elided from (or marginalized in) the story of major Roman monuments such as Hadrian’s Wall (227–43). He concludes that we need to study in more depth the diasporic nature of the Roman empire and the inclusivity of its operation. He also sees the potential for exploring the concept of diaspora for opening up greater understanding about the power and politics of the Roman empire.

Overall, there is much of value in this agenda-setting volume. It is inevitable that the work presented in this book will be surpassed in coming years as more scientific data is accrued, but the achievement of the authors here is that they have given a huge impetus to the investigation of diaspora and migration in the Roman world. These will be key themes in the years ahead and are going to reveal unsuspected variability in provincial societies in the Roman empire. The varied ways in which these mixed populations expressed their identities (what I have called discrepant identities) has much to tell us about the operation of sociopolitical power in such colonial systems.

David Mattingly
School of Archaeology and Ancient History
University of Leicester
Leicester LE1 7RH
United Kingdom

Book Review of Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire, edited by Hella Eckardt

Reviewed by David Mattingly

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 1 (January 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1161.Mattingly

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