Modern day London stands atop what used to be an ancient Roman city called Londinium. This city was established sometime between 40 and 50 B.C., and was inhabited throughout the era of Roman Britain until Londinium was abandoned by the Romans in the 5th century. At its height, the city held close to 100,000 residents and was a major commercial hub for the Roman Empire, attracting merchants and traders from every corner of the globe.
Despite our best archaeological evidence, much is still unknown about London’s ancient Roman roots due to the fact that urban development has destroyed much of the city’s past. Luckily for historians, the city’s rich history just got a new mystery to solve thanks to the discovery of two mysterious itinerant skeletons discovered in a cemetery in Southwark.
According to a recent study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, new advances in lead and strontium radioactive dating have led to a wide range of new discoveries about the truly global society that inhabited Londinium at the height of Roman Britain:
Within the past decade, researchers have successfully applied isotopic analyses of strontium and oxygen to human remains from various settlements in Roman Britain in order to identify the migrant status of the inhabitants.[...] The results suggest that the geographic origins of the population of Roman London varied, comprising individuals local to Londinium and Britannia, but also from further afield.
Further afield, indeed - out of the twenty individuals disinterred and analyzed in this study, six were from outside of Europe: four from Africa and two from China. While it was previously known that some African traders had travelled throughout Rome during this period, the discovery of the Chinese remains was a surprise to the archaeologists conducting this research.
It is currently unknown whether the skeletons’ owners were born in China and travelled to Londinium or were the descendants of earlier immigrants. While some historians are claiming that this finding could rewrite some aspects of Roman history, critics have already attempted to call the researchers' methodology into question. Whatever the DNA analysis reveals, this finding has the potential to reshape current thinking about the early London and its role in global society of the time.