Discover the Archaeological Evidence of Black Roman Londoners

Kim Biddulph

Black Roman Londoners

Evidence for the multicultural nature of Londinium comes from a number of sources. For instance, classical texts by writers such as Tacitus, who mentioned that before Boudica burned the city in AD 60/61, London was a City of merchants. Recent excavations in the heart of the City at the Bloomberg site on the Walbrook uncovered writing tablets which have confirmed the presence of merchants from the continent at this early time. Inscriptions have recorded the names of people from all over the Empire, including Aulus Aufidius Olussa of Athens whose tombstones was found on Tower Hill in 1852 and is now in the British Museum.

Black and white picture of a large inscribed tombstone
Tombstone of Aulus Aufidius Olussa © Trustees of the British Museum

Objects buried with Roman Londoners sometimes suggest that the owner had migrated from long distances. Most burials happened outside the boundaries of Londinium, according to Roman law. A teenage girl was buried at Lant Street in Southwark with an ivory knife in the shape of a leopard, similar to others found in Carthage in what is now Tunisia. This was confirmed by some recently developed scientific analyses. The mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA - from the mother)of the Lant Street teenager showed her ancestry on that side came from eastern Europe (the area of Bulgaria or Romania today). Her aDNA was investigated for evidence of hair and eye colour, which showed she was blond and blue-eyed. Finally, stable isotope analysis showed she had in fact grown up in the southern Mediterranean i.e. North Africa for the first ten years of her life.

The inhabitants of North Africa at the time of the Roman Empire were themselves quite diverse. Indigenous Berber kingdoms lived across the region, but Greeks and Phoenicians from the eastern Mediterranean had founded cities, like Carthage, and migrated here too. The Roman Republic then defeated the Carthaginian Empire and took over North Africa, dividing it into various provinces, and building their own cities. A person shown to have grownup in North Africa during the Roman Empire might therefore have Roman, Greek, Phoenician or Berber heritage. Alongside stable isotope analysis, therefore,further evidence is needed to be sure that a person from Londinium was Black.

A study looking at four individuals from around Londinium; a woman from Harper Road, a man from Mansell Street, a man from London Wall and the teenager from Lant Street were analysed in a recent project by the Museum of London. As well as aDNA (for biological sex, eye and hair colour) and mtDNA (for maternal ancestry), strontium and lead stable isotope analyses (to look at place of childhood), morphological study of the shape of diagnostic pieces of bone (to determine ancestry) was also undertaken, alongside a reexamination of the grave goods buried with the individual.

Out of just these four burials, the Lant Street teenager was found to have grown up in North Africa but may not have had Black ancestry. The Harper Road woman was found to have eastern European ancestry and to be chromosomally male. The London Wall man was white and had grown up in Britain and may have been a gladiator from the many healed wounds on his skeleton. Mansell Street man had a bad back. He was around 45 when he died, and had lived in the 3rd or 4th century AD. He also had Black ancestry from North Africa with dark hair and brown eyes. He had grown up in London and lived here all his life.

Two images of the same small figurine. Light brown simple figure of a gladiator with details of a hat and shield.
Bone figure of a Gladiator from Londinium © Trustees of the British Museum

Most notably, the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus built the section of London Wall that can still be seen today by Tower Hill underground station in around AD 200. Severus was born in Leptis Magna, a city in modern-day Libya, into an aristocratic family. He served as a senator before claiming power in AD 192. Severus travelled to Roman Britain with the intention to conquer Caledonia (Scotland) and he built this section of wall as a reminder to the people of Londinium of who was boss following a revolt led by the Governor of Britannia Clodius Albinus.

Via: History Hit

Large bust of a roman emperor with a beard, leaf crown and robe
Bust of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus © Trustees of the British Museum

The Roman Emperor Septimus Severus is often claimed to be an African emperor. He ordered London Wall to be built in around AD 200, parts of which can still be seen e.g. at Tower Hill tube station. Severus was born in Leptis Magna, a city in modern-day Libya, into an aristocratic family. He may have been born in North Africa but his father was Roman and his mother Phoenician, he probably wasn’t Black.

More information

Ancient DNA: Written in bone (CW: human skeletal remains)

The surprising diversity of Roman London (CW: human skeletalremains)

Roman Inscriptions of Britain

Redfern, R, Marshall, M, Eaton, K & Poinar, H 2017.‘Written in Bone’: New Discoveries about the Lives and Burials of Four RomanLondoners. Britannia 48, pp 253-277.