History is Dangerous: On Roman-Chinese Skeletons

A couple of weeks ago, the discovery of Chinese skeletons in a Roman cemetery in London attracted a flurry of headlines.. More than one news outlet chose to run with the blaring headline that this discovery would “rewrite history.” “The findings promise to rewrite the history of the Romans,” claimed the Daily Mail (while simultaneously spelling Seneca wrong. Unbelievable). The Times said the same.


The tone of all the coverage of the skeletons is the same: “good grief, there were people of colour in the past! England wasn’t a snowy homogeneous festival of whiteness back then!” They even use the language of modern day immigration concerns to discuss the skeletons. Both the Mail and the Times call them foreigners, using the language of the nation state to describe them and to mark them out as unusual, out of place and other.


That the ancient world wasn’t an Aryan wet dream of pure whiteness should be obvious. Mary Beard gives a quick overview in her Times Blog of some of the various ethnicities of bodies that have been found in Roman England. And in doing so she highlights something else about the coverage of all these non-White bodies: no matter how many are found, the narrative of a white, homogeneous past will still remain.


Take, for example, the Bangle Lady found in York in 1901, and identified in 2010 as being of sub-Saharan African ethnic origin. This is a Black woman, young—18-23— and very very very rich. She is the 1% of Roman Britain in the late 300s AD. Now, try your best to fit a Black woman into your image of late Roman Britain. It’s a struggle, because you have never seen a representation of a Black person in the pre-Modern world that showed them as anything other than a slave.


We see that discomfort with the idea of a Black woman existing outside of slavery in this article about another Black Roman woman found in Beachy Head. And the same is happening with the Chinese skeletons; journalists assume they must be traders and merchants, because how else would an East Asian person end up in London? The implied image in these assumptions is that the norm is white people, while people of colour exist in the past only to serve and cater to them. People of colour are not the norm, they are a surprising exception. So surprising that their existence deserves international newspaper coverage every damn time they are identified.


But why does this matter? So the Roman cities of England were multi-ethnic. Who cares? Well, you should care. Because it is the fundamentally incorrect vision that before 1950, England was a pastoral paradise of cultural homogeneity and flavourless food that reinforces, and seeks to justify, the ideology underpinning  the BNP and UKIP and Britain First and “legitimate immigration concerns” and Brexit.


At the weekend, the former director of the British Museum highlighted just this about the British (and then referred exclusively to English history, but that’s another debate). He said: “In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us…This sort of handling of history is dangerous as well as regrettable”. We pick the bits we like, he says, the bits that represent the good, strong people that we think we are. The good, strong, white people. We erase the Prussians who were instrumental in defeating Napoleon and the Gurkha troops who have fought for Britain for 200 years, and the rich Black women who lived in York in the fourth century.


This erasure means that people (some nefariously, some not so much) get to present British traditions, British “ways of life”, Britishness in and of itself as being fundamentally white. They get to present people of colour and European workers and refugees and the Irish and everyone who deviates from this vision as being new, foreign and dangerous. As threatening “traditions” and “Britishness”.


But here’s the truth, the truth that these Roman skeletons reveal over and over again: Britain has never been homogeneous. Britain has never been a racist’s white paradise. There have always been British people of colour, and Roman people of colour and medieval people of colour living normal, free, British lives before the concept of Great Britain ever emerged.


The Chinese skeletons are “rewriting history”  in the sense that they force us, as the general public and as historians, to confront how artificial our visions of the past are, how much they have been constructed in the image of our own idealised selves and how powerful those artificial pasts can be in shaping the present. History is a dangerous subject when it is handled without care.


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