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Insects in Roman Britain

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Musings about Thematic Collecting and Roman Migration

Regina's tombstone from South Shields
Regina’s tombstone from South Shields

Just got back from a windy walk around the village and found myself thinking about the thematic collecting topic of migration. Over the last few weeks I’ve been considering how we could develop a filmed conversation about people from the Middle East who end up in Roman Britain. This was inspired by the knowledge that we have  a fascinating but sadly incomplete Roman auxiliary diploma that was awarded to a Syrian. From the date on this official document inscribed on bronze we can say with some confidence that the soldier concerned was recruited during the 130s AD. Paul Holder of the University library wrote a paper in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library suggesting that the historical circumstances in which this man was recruited into a auxiliary regiment in the 130s were very interesting because this was when elements of the Roman army of Britain were involved in crushing the Judaean revolt led by Bar Kochbar. On completion of the campaign the man (we don’t know his name – that bit didn’t survive on his diploma) came back to Blighty with his regiment and never went back to Syria.

Ravenglass auxiliary diploma awarded to a Syrian
Ravenglass auxiliary diploma awarded to a Syrian

It seems to me that if we wanted to develop this further and make links with archaeological material in other museum collections there is a very fine Roman inscription set up by Barathes the Palmyran to his British wife Regina or ‘Queenie’. Palmyra was a kingdom in the Middle East in the Roman period occupying parts of what is now Syria and Jordan. Somehow this man too ended up in Roman Britain and is likely to have purchased Regina as a slave and  he married her. This is not unusual amongst slave owning Romans and Romanized provincials. Of course we don’t know how much Queenie had to say in the matter but presumably this was a marital relationship that involved genuine feeling because Barathes gave his wife a fine tombstone depicting her with her jewellery box and finery and with his own personal grieving statement ‘Barathes the Palmyran alas’. Alex Croom, Keeper of Archaeology for Tyne and Wear Archives and Museum Service  at the splendid Museum in South Shields, showed me the tombstone at the end of April and commented on its high quality.

We can see in the auxiliary diploma from Ravenglass and the tombstone set up by Barathes evidence of men from the Middle East putting down roots in the province of Britannia. Presumably the anonymous Syrian didn’t go home after completing his 25 years service in the Roman army because his diploma was found at Ravenglass in Cumbria. Neither of the men got to choose where they went. The Roman Empire needed soldiers to go to where they were needed in different provinces and the men went and they made the best of what opportunities military service in the province offered them. The lives of ordinary men and women who were caught up in the highly bureaucratic and unfeeling decisions of directive, authoritarian empires, contending with rebellion, war and appalling bloodshed. Isn’t this what Doctor Zhivago is all about? Or War and Peace? There is a much more recent and equally fascinating historical incident that parallels the Roman stories nicely. During the First World War Yemeni sailors were moved to South Shields to take the places of English sailors who were serving in the British army. The country still needed merchant sailors and fishermen and the Yemenis had the skills and they too were moved to meet the needs of a large and powerful empire fighting a long hard war with a rival imperial power. The Yemenis, like Barathes and our anonymous Syrian nearly 2000 years earlier, put down roots. They formed relationships with women in the town. They married and had children. This caused some tension when the English men returned home after the war ended but then things calmed down and life went back to normal and people got on with their lives. Does this offer a lesson from history about immigration? That people migrate for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they might not much choice in what happens to them but they do what people have always done: they form relationships in their new home that outweigh any desire to return to their homeland. It’s just what people do. So far so good. I then started thinking that these men of Rome’s eastern provinces are only known to us because they had got the epigraphic habit of setting up inscriptions and fortunately for them (and for us studying this almost 2000 years later) these inscriptions happen to have survived. They can be read and deciphered. How many stories have been lost because the inscriptions didn’t survive? It then struck me that there is another story connected with the topic of migration that deals with far more mundane matters that no-one deemed worthy of immortalizing in an inscription, and which only survive as archaeological evidence.

Archaeologically beetles' wing cases and other hard parts of the insect's body do survive and can be identified
Archaeologically beetles’ wing cases and other hard parts of the insect’s body do survive and can be identified

The specimens involved were just as much the passive subjects of unthinking imperial forces and moved along the supply routes of the Roman army. We are all familiar with commodities wine, olive oil and even fish sauce that were transported around the empire in huge quantities in storage jars called amphorae. There were other things that hitched a ride so to speak on these trade routes to arrive in places where they would not have been welcome – if that is the Romans could have foreseen or understood their economic  impact. I’m referring of course to beetles that infested Roman grain. Yesterday when I was attending a meeting at the Yorkshire Archaeological Society headquarters in Leeds I happened to have a spare quarter of an hour to browse the bookshelves and came across an article by David Smith and Harry Kenward about Roman grain pests in Britain. The writers reviewed the evidence for insect infestations and found little or none before the Roman occupation and little afterwards until the time of the Normans. The reason for this is that the Romans moved grain around to feed the soldiers and inadvertently introduced infested grain into granaries. As the writers say in their article: ‘…This would have enabled large populations of insects to develop and bring about constant re-infestation’ (Britannia 42, 243-262).

Roman granary at Corbridge near Hadrian's Wall
Roman granary at Corbridge near Hadrian’s Wall

So it strikes me that we could put together a really interesting story about people who migrate because of the Roman army, and beetles that were carried along the same transportation routes at the whim of distant, authoritarian and unaccountable imperial bureaucracies and how they make the best of the opportunities their (enforced) migration offers them. The evidence is there to be interpreted: inscriptions that attest the presence of Syrians, Palmyrans and people from all over the Roman Empire and beyond; and the burnt grain, sometimes said to be the result of attacks by disaffected native British tribesmen on Roman forts but in actual fact (and far more mundanely) just what’s left over when the Roman quartermaster burnt a load of infested grain that wasn’t fit for consumption. This was the reality behind the ‘Malton Burnt Grain’, discussed in an article by Paul Buckland in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal some years ago. In the historical  imagination rampaging tribesmen get preferential treatment as an explanation for the presence of burnt grain on these military sites rather than the far more prosaic and all too common tale of an infestation of weevils.

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