Philobiblon: Those mixed-up Britons

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Those mixed-up Britons

The promised second half of my notes from last week's British Museum gallery talk: as you can see from below, I've been a little busy with the History Carnival.

So, the British population: the first Homo sapiens sapiens arrive between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. Before that the Britons were Homo erectus (for which the oldest evidence is about 700,000 years ago) and Neanderthals. But until about 7,500BC there was a land bridge between Britain and continental Europe, so populations presumably interchanged.

From 7,500BC to about 4,000BC the "Britons" were entirely cut off, but from around that date Neolithic farmers started to arrive in timber-framed leather boats - not dinghies but serious vessels that brought even livestock. (What a journey that must have been.)

They brought what is known as the Beaker Culture. But there were never - as taught in traditional history books - waves of Celtic invaders. There was a lot of interchange of culture and isolated mixing of populations - usually in pockets: the cart burials in Yorkshire indicate close ties with the Parisi (around modern-day Paris) - perhaps the result of a marriage alliance?, and the archer at Stonehenge who was shown to be from near the European Alps, but no big invasion.

So the first large influx of foreign people is Claudius's army, about 50,000 men, most of whom are of course from varying provinces of the empire. There were probably never more than a few hundred "ethnic Romans" in Britain. With an initial population estimated at between 2 and 6 million, this was a serious influence.

We looked at the lovely collection of tombstones grouped in Gallery 49. (Do check out the gallery if you haven't been for a while - it has now been totally re-arranged and refurbished and has an enormous amount of new information and material.)

There are legionaries and auxiliaries from the Adriatic, from Spain, from the Belgic tribes, from across Gaul, and a surprisingly large number of Palmyrians. Although one of the "Palmyrian" women, her name shows, had been a British slave girl from the St Albans area, who presumably "married up". Her tombstone shows her dressed as a perfect Palmyrian lady, but the Latin on it is a mess. The Palmyrian script (a form of Aramaeic) below, however, is perfect, suggesting a serious-sized community as it could support a stone mason.

So if you were in the town of Corbridge, Northumbria, today as "Little England" as you could imagine, in say 200AD, our guide Sam Moorhead suggested, you could have expected to hear half a dozen languages, and seen people from all parts of the Roman world, from "Ethiopians" (the Roman word for dark-skinned Africans), to Syrians, to people from what is now Russia. But virtually all of them would have thought of themselves as, or have been striving to have themselves thought of, as Romans.

So for about 2,500 years - until about 4,000BC - Britons were an ethnically isolated population. The mixing started with those Neolithic farmers and has been going on ever since ... so much for those who like to suggest there's anything solid or meaningful about the concept of race.

* While researching this I found a blog of the Boxgrove site, which dates back about half a million years, detailing recent work there.


Blogger Ronnie Smartt said...

Dig out your collected Auden and (re)read "Roman Wall Blues".

8/17/2005 08:35:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I did read it here,, thanks. I particularly like the lice!

8/21/2005 09:59:00 pm  

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