Was Roman Britain Ethnically Diverse?

romanbritainI have had the somewhat bewildering experience of seeing two very different people I follow on twitter get into a massive spat over a BBC cartoon aimed at educating children.  The cartoon seems to be showing a well groomed man of sub-Saharan African pedigree with a Mediterranean looking Mrs, and children with varied skin tones, this was labelled as a “Typical” family in Roman Britain.  Considering that 99% of the population of lowland (Roman) Britain were to a great extent a mix of fair or brown haired, pale eyed, and pale skinned, individuals, and probably spent most of their lives covered in dirt and sweat from working the rich British Farmlands for the profit of, their native British overlords who were wilfully collaborating with the Roman Military occupation.   I can only guess that either the caption was a mistake, or this was an effort to re-write history at the BBC.  It’s a bit like putting up the picture below and claiming that it represents a “typical” Indian family from the Raj:

tennis-party_2214153kIt seems that wilfully or just through ineptitude, someone in the BBC is confusing the Romans in Britain with the people of Roman Britain.

The argument got quite heated with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the hard talking Lebanese ex-new York and London stockmarket trader, mathematician and autodidact (in some areas), vs Beard the well mannered, academic, English lady.  Taleb said that if the picture from the BBC was “Typical” why was there no trace of sub-Saharan genes in the British gene pool, and Beard arguing that there was ample documentary and archaeological evidence for Africans in Britain.  Both were correct.

It escalated when Mary Beard asked Nassim Taleb if he’d read any books on Roman Britain, and Taleb calling Beard a bullshitter.  It seemed to me that they were arguing at cross purposes and across a massive socio-cultural political divide.   Taleb seemed to be arguing against apparent Political propaganda from the BBC aimed at re-writing history to make it more acceptable to an urban liberal elite, whilst Beard was arguing against an alt-right perception of British racial purity.

Romans in Britain vs Roman Britain

There were undoubtedly black Africans in Roman Britain, but not many.  There is evidence for more “Mediterranean type” North Africans, and even more Europeans from various states.  But even the highest estimates of the numbers of people from other parts of the Roman Empire in Roman Britain don’t go beyond about 5%, and that number varies widely up to the 5% maximum over the 400 or so years that the Romans militarily occupied us.  The largest numbers of these would have been concentrated in the military at very specific points of the country.  It seems also that integration between the indigenous Brits and the Roman sponsored incomers was low level at best, as genetic fingerprints suggesting a Roman past for modern British citizens is largely absent.  Without a doubt there was some intermarriage, indeed there is evidence for this in documentary sources, and soldiers wouldn’t be soldiers, if there wasn’t a local whore house servicing and profiting from their carnal requirements.  But given the relative numbers of Roman incomers at any time compared to the large gene pool of indigenous Brits, any residual genetic legacy has been drowned out.

So was there much ethnic diversity in the indigenous population of Roman Britain? No there wasn’t.  Was there much ethnic diversity among the Romans in Britain, absolutely.

To say that Roman Britain was ethnically diverse would be like saying that the Hampshire Village I live in on the South Coast of England is ethnically diverse because we have a Curry House up the road, or because we are only a hour and a half from ethnically diverse areas of London.  To say that the Romans in Britain were ethnically diverse is like saying that people who live in central London are ethnically diverse, which is true beyond doubt.  But they are two different things, and by no means mutually exclusive.

Trolls and the Academic Virtue Signallers

Unfortunately any hope of rationalising the argument went out the window as soon as the respective sets of followers got involved and started shouting “Fight! Fight!” like kids in a school playground.  From what I saw, the Taleb fans were far more unpleasant on a personal level to Mary Beard, than the Beard fans were towards Taleb.  The Taleb followers went into full personal insult troll mode, probably without knowing who Mary Beard was, especially as many seemed to be from the USA and for some strange reason Italy (then again they were discussing the Romans), whereas the Beard supporters tended to be more academic putting up tweets of blogs that generally didn’t negate Taleb’s arguments but gave a vent to their virtue signalling.

The underlying issue seemed to be that you had a group of fairly Liberal Academics on Beard’s side arguing for a re-writing of history to fit a politically correct agenda, and on Taleb’s side a group of unsavoury Trolls trying to silence any liberal dissent without actually taking it on in a rational argument.  I don’t believe that Beard or Taleb were responsible for either approach.

Interestingly I tweeted both parties to suggest that the issue was one of the Romans in Britain vs Roman Britain, but despite the fact that they both retweeted and answered many unpleasant or ill thought through tweets from both sides, thereby prolonging the pointless shouting match, my, hopefully rational suggestion got ignored by both.  That’s a shame.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

Taleb made a very valid point, saying that there was no evidence for sub-Saharan genes in the native British gene pool before the modern era.  This was absolutely correct,  academics on Beard’s side countered that the genes could have been lost through genetic drift, especially when looking at Y chromosomes and Mitochondrial DNA, without realising that if anything that probably supported Taleb’s argument.  This is because the smaller the representation of a chromosome in a population, the more likely it is to disappear over time through lack chance pairings, e.g. if a man is the only representative of his Y chromosome within a population and all his offspring are daughters, then his Y chromosome will disappear from the records.  So the lower the numbers of individuals with such ancestry the more likely their footprint is to disappear from the genetic map.

If the population was in any meaningful way “Ethnically Diverse” their genes would turn up, even in small numbers in current generations, and ancient samples.  So Taleb’s arguments don’t show that there weren’t ANY sub-Saharan Africans in Roman Britain, just that they were not represented in any statistically significant numbers, therefore the attempt to show “Roman Britain” as opposed to “the Romans in Britain” as ethnically diverse is nonsense.

Archaeology and DNA

I was also amazed in the number of academics who rallied to the cry that Genetics is not a silver bullet of proof, and can’t be taken in isolation, and were prepared to ignore it all together because it didn’t fit their arguments, and even tried to bolster their argument by quoting approaches that are far less rigourous than genetics, and facts that actually undermined their own arguments.

For example, a number of people quoted the evidence that bodies from high status “Roman” graves in Britain, notably Lant Street from Bermondsey in South London showed evidence, mainly through isotope analysis, of individuals who may have come from North Africa (or at least somewhere hotter and drier than Italy).  If they had read the actual conclusions from the dig (as I did), they would have seen that one young woman in particular who was cited as being “probably” raised in North Africa, actually had blue eyes according to genetic evaluation of her remains.  Blue eyes only developed once in history, and that was in Europe.  In other words she was an example of possible genetic diversity in North Africa, rather than genetic diversity in Britain.  In any case she is just as likely to have come from Southern Europe as North Africa.

To be convincing, what would be needed to make the BBC cartoon and caption true rather than politically correct propaganda aimed at children would be a sub -saharan African genetic profile from a Roman era grave in a non-urban environment in Roman occupied Britain, that had an isotope analysis that showed the person had been raised in Britain.  Some evidence of this has been found in non-sub-Saharan ancestry remains in the urbanised areas of Roman Britain, but not in the rural areas where the overwhelming large numbers of indigenous Britons lived.

Looking at other periods, the Amesbury Archer, has been shown to have come from somewhere in Central Europe, and he left a genetic marker in later generations,  born and bred in Britain.  Clear evidence of ethnic mixing albeit on a much less obvious European level.

If we look at  the latest genomic and other research on individuals from the urban Roman parts of Roman Britain, we see interesting results.  Firstly in the North of England in York, extensive testing has been carried out on Roman era remains from the Roman City, all the results bar one individual show  haplogroups of sub-lineages of  (R1b-L52/L11) the most common Y chromosome lineage from natives of Western Europe, one man was found to be from J2-L228 Haplogroup, which is described as “Middle-Eastern” but is better described as East Mediterranean and Near Eastern.  The rest of the male skeletons were found to be similar genetically to the modern Welsh, rather than modern Yorkshiremen.  All of the mitochondrial DNA  passed on by female ancestors in the bodies tested were from the most common Western European lineages.

One oft touted individual from York is the so called Ivory Bangle Lady, who undoubtedly spent many years in either Southern Europe or North Africa, and had an Elephant Ivory Bangle in her grave goods.  She has been claimed to be “African” and depicted more or less as a “Black African”, apparently based on some bone measurements.  It made a good story for press releases, and was eagerly taken up by the BBC.  however, looking closer at claims for her sub-Saharan African ancestry, and other individuals amongst Roman remains who even have Chinese claims for ancestry, it will be found that these claims are so far based on measuring size and relative proportions of bones and teeth (Macromorphology) rather than on any DNA evidence.  This approach is thought of as unreliable amongst Bioarchaeologists.  No isotope analysis or DNA studies back up the claims.  So at best an unreliable approach is being taken to make claims of headline grabbing exotic African origins for remains, let alone Chinese.

The obvious upside of this is that it brings publicity for the Archaeologists involved.  I’d be prepared to bet that if more detailed DNA research is carried out on these remains, all of the more exotic claims will be disproved.

Sampling Bias

Which brings us back to the other elephant in the room; ALL the Roman era bodies that have been subjected to genetic analysis and that show any sign of non-indiginous genetic makeup are ones from small but heavily Romanised enclaves, such as London and York, and military areas dominated by the Roman Politico-Military machine.  They just aren’t representative of the overall population of Roman Britain.

It’s a bit like an unexpected Tsunami hitting the River Hamble during Cowes week, and Archaeologists in two thousand years time uncovering the skeletons of the drowned from the mud, declaring that there were such a high number of Russians and Arabs among the dead, that Hamble must have been an ethnically diverse Village in deepest Hampshire, and therefore the whole of the UK must have harboured a massive population of Russians and Arabs; outside of Knightsbridge that just wouldn’t be the case.  Similarly did my maternal granddad serving in the British Army in India before and after the First World War make India Ethnically Diverse?  I don’t think so.

Getting back to the evidence, all the genetic and isotope evidence so far shows a balance between Indigenous British, European, and some Mediterranean (including the Roman Provinces of North Africa and the Levant) genetics, backed up by similar findings for isotope analysis.  But again this is from heavily Romanised urban militarised areas, where most of the population didn’t live, but where most of the high status (and therefore interesting from a media point of view) burials are found, and quite frankly, where “all the foreigners” would have lived in Roman times (to quote an imaginary Ancient British taxi driver) .  It simply isn’t a representative sample of “Roman Britain” although undoubtedly is a representative sample of “the Romans in Britain”.  Hence the twitter storm.

Mediterranean vs Sub-Saharan

All the examples of Africans quoted, bar one, were of North Africans, who were largely “Mediterranean” in genotype and phenotype rather than “Sub-Saharan”.  But unfortunately these people didn’t seem to be African enough for some academics, so you will find examples of Septimus Severus, Roman Emperor, half Liby-Phoenician half Italian, being described simply as an African Emperor of Rome who died in Britain (the last fact is correct), on the “Black Roman” section of the British National Archives site.

Twitter brings out the worst in people (on average)

The sad thing about the whole debacle was not just the appalling mindless despicable name calling of the trolls towards Mary Beard, from people with less than a fraction of her ability, but the sadly inept and downright incorrect arguments of many of the academics when trying to counter argue Nassim Taleb,  and their attempts to defend the indefensible, i.e. the intentional or otherwise inaccurate BBC propaganda aimed at children.  If only the BBC had resisted the chance to politicise the cartoon, and instead entitled it “An interesting and unusual example of a Roman Family in Britain” maybe the debate could have been carried on at a calmer level?

For my part I’m happy for my ancestors to have come from any background and skin colour. But I don’t want academic arrogance and missinformation driving a political agenda falsely re-writing history, nor do I want a debate drowned out by trolls hurling insults.

History may be written by the winners, but genetics is the voice of the people.

…and if you are interested in seeing who you are descended from, contact Time Detectives on paulmcneil@timedetectives.co.uk.




Time Detectives solve “Mystery of 1920s books found in a Hereford school cupboard”

A recent news story from the BBC caught our eyes recently at Time Detectives, it concerned the fortuitous discovery of a set of school exercise books from 1927-1930 at Aylestone Business and Enterprise College, and contained the work  of a pupil named Mona Stonyer.  In itself the piece was interesting as it let the current pupils compare the precise neat, well written work of the 1920s, with their own endeavours.  On the face of it an interesting story, but for me it begged the question of “Who was Mona Stonyer, and what happened to her?”  Of course Time Detectives can’t resist a mystery, and will never let a sleeping dog lie,  so here’s Mona’s story.

Mona; Hard Work out of Adversity

The exercise books show that Mona was a diligent student, and she did come from a reasonably stonyercrashaffluent background, but her family had suffered a great deal of adversity in her young life, and she had had to overcome this.

The story comes from various local Newspapers in the area.  On the evening of Saturday 18th September 1926, a year before the date of the exercise books, Mona was involved in a serious motorcycle crash in St Owen street Hereford.

Mona’s Father William Jukes Stonyer was riding his Motorcycle and sidecar combination with Mona on the pillion seat behind him, and his wife and elder daughter Ruby in the sidecar.  He was riding behind the car of one of his employers a Mr Thyne from the local tile factory, when Mr Thyne indicated with his arm out of the car window for William to overtake him.  Unfortunately as William overtook his boss’s car, a lady on a bicycle rode up on the other side of the road, this made William swerve to the right, across the road, where he mounted the pavement and smashed into a Street light.  This was in the days before the compulsory wearing of crash helmets, and the result was that although the mother Ellen and sister Ruby were relatively unharmed in the sidecar, both Mona and her father received serious head injuries and Mona also badly injured her legs.

Bystanders took Mona and her Father to Hospital, but William died before he got there, and Mona was in a critical state.  one split second accident had caused him to lose his life in a Hereford street at 56 years of age, and almost cost him the life of his youngest daughter at 13 years of age.

It’s not known how long Mona remained in a critical state in Hospital, or  what effect the injuries had on her later life, but by 1927, the earliest date of the exercise books, she was back in school and would leave a legacy for future generations to find.

An Intelligent Family

Mona showed determination in the face of adversity, but she had a good start in terms of intelligence and also example from the family , both nature and nurture.

Georgian Millwrights, the Engineers of their daymillwright

The Stonyer family originated in the Kidderminster and Worcester areas of Worcestershire where Mona’s Great Great Grandfather John Stonyer married Susanna Evans in 1819.  They had two sons, William (Mona’s Great Grandfather) born in 1820 and John, born in 1821. John was a Millwright, a highly skilled job usually for a specialist carpenter, who also understood mechanics, could generally read and write and do arithmetic, in other words an educated and intelligent person, not a simple labourer.  Of necessity Millwrights were to some extent itinerant, in pre-industrial days before Manufacturing Mills became commonplace, John Stoner would have travelled around the County or farther afield working on the small individual Mills to work on or help build.

John would have had a good living as long as the work was available, and that would be his challenge, well paid when in work, but where was the work?  And it would seem that the place to find the work was London.  By 1830 the family had moved to Bermondsey, Lambeth, South London, or strictly speaking the Surrey shores of the Thames in what would become South London some years later.  It must be remembered that they did this a decade before Railways started to become commonplace, so would have either travelled by Stage Coach, or just possibly by barge down the widespread inland canal routes.

So why a Millwright in South London?  Well South London had been the birthplace of Mill Labour on an industrial scale with the Albion Flour Mill, as well as Mills for draining the local marshes, Lead Mills, Tanneries, and various mechanical works on the docks and building sites of this fast growing area.  Work for skilled Millwrights was plentiful, and we find John Stonyer described as a Millwright and Shipbuilder with a Deal Yard (Wood Yard) in Grange Road Bermondsey, which came close to burning down in 1836, but was saved by the timely intervention of the local volunteer fire service.

turnpike-00296-640Grange Road itself was described at the time as one of the Prettiest Roads in Bermondsey, despite being in the proximity of the notorious Jacob’s Island, where Dickens writing in 1837, exactly contemporary with the Stonyers living there, placed the lair of Bill Sikes where he would eventually meet his demise by falling from a rooftop into the mud below.Jacob's_Island_-_Folly_Ditch_at_Mill_Lane,_circa._1840

Victorian Millwrights and Engineers

Work was so plentiful that John Stonyer’s sons, William (Mona’s great Grandfather) and John followed him into the Millwright trade, but by the 1840s were tending to be referred to also as Engineers, implying they were involved in more than traditional Mills, and most likely dealing with Steam Engines as well as the traditional Wind and Watermills.  It was just as well that the brothers were quick learners and established in the trade by their late teens as their father John died in 1841, when they were 21 and 20 respectively.

Business went well for the brothers, and they stayed in the Deptford and Lambeth areas of South London during the 1840s where they both married and started to raise families, then in the 1850s the brothers moved to Clerkenwell North of the Thames in Central London, an area that was home to a number of Industrial Companies producing Stationary Steam Engines, which would have provided skilled engineers with steady work.

By the 1860s the elder Brother William (Mona’s Great Grandfather) decided to move with his wife and teenage children (daughter Ellen Louisa and son William Edward) back to his birth area of the Midlands, first to Worcester and then to Leominster, where he kept up work as a more modern Mechanical Engineer.

The younger brother John stayed in London and raised his own Family there.

Late Victorian Fitters and Pillars of the Community

William Edward Stonyer, Mona’s Grandfather, settled eventually in the Whittington area of Hereford, and spent forty years working in the local Encaustic Tile Works as an Engineer and Machinist on steam Engines in the works, the Engineer’s role requiring good design skills, and the machinist role needed a keen eye and steady hand, rather like the work that Mona would produce in her school work some years later.

William Edward married Elizabeth Jukes, and Elizabeth, not content to be a Victorian Housewife, ran a Grocer’s shop with her daughter Edith Elizabeth, so would have been known to everyone in the local area.  The Family were doing well, their sons Harry Edward Stonyer and William Jukes Stonyer (born in 1869 and 1870 respectively) were well educated and went into good middleclass jobs, Harry Edward was an Invoice Clerk eventually working for the Inland Rvenue, and his brother William Jukes (Mona’s Father) followed his Father and Grandfather becoming a Fitter and Mechanical Engineer, and like his father, at the local Tile Works.

Mona’s Family

So Mona was brought up in a stable middleclass environment, with a skilled professional Father in a good job, who was from a long line of logically minded skilled designers and craftsmen, her Father William was also a pillar of the community, he had been the secretary of the local Withington Football Club, and the local Flower Show, as well as organist in the Church for thirty years.  William Jukes worked at the internationally renowned H G Thynne Tile works, and this would indirectly cause his death, as it was the owner of the works, Mr Thynne, who had signalled him to overtake the car he was driving, which lead to William crashing his Motorcycle and sidecar combination.

On her Mother Ellen’s side an independent woman who ran the Family Grocery Store, and her aunt Edith would go on to run a Boarding House.

Mona inherited both her family’s intelligence and gift for producing clear precise design, along with the examples of success through many generations of the Family.

Modern Times

Mona never married.  She carried on living with her Mother Ellen at 4 Grove Lane Hereford, until her Mother died in 1959, her Mother leaving Mona her entire inheritance as Mona’s elder sister Ruby had died in 1949, again unmarried.  Mona was still living at 4 Grove Lane at least into the early 1980s.

As neither Mona nor her sister had children, and neither did their Aunt or Uncle, it seems that there are no close relatives left to admire the work she did, but at least her life is no longer a  mystery.

You can see the BBC news Story of Mona’s Books by clicking the link below:


If you’d like to have your Family History researched by Time detectives, feel free to drop me a line on paulmcneil@timedetectives.co.uk

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