This week: Ancient immigration

Tombstone unearthed at Arbeai Roman fort in South Shields, commemorating Victor the Moor from North Africa, a freed slave. It was commissioned by his ex-master, a cavalry soldier from Spain. Image: Carole Raddato, Flickr,

While the subject of immigration remains perennially high up the modern political agenda, there is a tendency still in Britain to view the movement of people to these shores as a relatively recent phenomenon – as if it only began in the post-war period, with the arrival of the ‘Windrush generation’ and other migrants from countries that once were part of the British Empire.

But multiculturalism has been a fact of life for much longer than that, of course.

As archaeologists tell us, the earliest evidence of human habitation in Britain – a c.900,000-year-old collection of stone implements, found at Happisburgh in Norfolk – was presumably left there by early immigrants who had trudged over from the continent via the chalk ridge that once connected south-east England to northern France.

Jumping forward rapidly through time, successive waves of ancient incomers – including Beaker folk, Romans, Jutes, Saxons, and Danes – all contributed to Britain’s rich cultural mix; while in the past 1,000 years, the displacement of countless more people by major events, from the Norman Conquest to the Second World War and beyond, has added to the sense that British history is above all a story of migration.

As we learn this week on The Past, a fascinating picture of the country’s early diversity can now be glimpsed – fittingly enough – in a city hailed today as one of the most diverse in modern Britain.

In the latest issue of Current Archaeology magazine, Mathew Morris explains how recent excavations in Leicester have revealed that in Roman times a multicultural fusion of people from different ethnic origins was living in the settlement then known as Ratae Corieltauvorum – an important Romano-British administrative centre that had connections across the Empire, even stretching as far away as Africa.

Also this week on The Past, we have been delving into the archives to discover more about diversity in Roman Britain: we visited Lankhills, Winchester, to see what this landmark ancient cemetery can tell us about the ethnic origins of its inhabitants; and we returned to Leicester’s West End to see what else investigation in this inner-city area can reveal about its Roman population.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is also focused on immigration to Britain. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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