It’s long been said that all roads lead to Rome. This was the case for many hopeful people living in the backwaters of the ancient world, and it is a story that hardly seems to change. Today, New York City is known as the central destination for those with an aching need for a better life. You can walk the streets and the food alone is a story in itself. But Rome, it would seem, was not so different. John Lennon once described the likeness of the modern city to that of its ancient twin.
“If I’d lived in Roman times, I’d have lived in Rome. Today, America is the Roman empire, and New York is Rome itself. New York is the center of the earth.”
But where did these ancient Roman immigrants come from, and what drove them to the capital city of a people that they undoubtedly regarded as conquerors? The answer to these questions may be in two Roman graveyards, where the occupants are as diverse as any melting pot city in our world today.
Kristina Killgrove from University of West Florida, U.S.A., and Janet Montgomery from Durham University, U.K. are two university researchers looking at the granular level of immigration patterns to discover the origins of over 105 individuals. In a recent press release, the significance of Killgrove and Montomery’s work is explained.
“They found up to eight individuals who were likely migrants from outside Rome, possibly from North Africa and the Alps. The individuals were mostly children and men, and the authors suggest their burial in a necropolis indicates that they may have been poor or even slaves. They also found that their diet probably changed significantly when they moved to Rome, possibly adapting to the local cuisine, comprising mostly wheat and some legumes, meat and fish.”
A sudden change in diet is the main indication that these people had come from far off places, for reasons unknown. Either way, they died poor and at the very bottom of the totem pole. It’s easy to assume they may have been slaves. A necropolis was where ancients commonly buried people who would not have had the means for a decent burial, or perhaps had no one to care. It was a particularly common place to bury slaves.
One aspect to consider when drawing any comparison between the United States and Rome is that, at the beginning of the Roman Empire, about 5 percent of the immigrant populations were free and traveled there by choice, while the percentage of the immigrant population that were brought as slaves was about 40 percent.
The press release claims that further DNA analysis is needed to expose further genetic origins of the individuals, but the analysis of their teeth is enough to tell Killgrove and Montgomery the general and initial origin of the people buried there. Genetic data could confirm what the teeth analysis says, and it could tell us the ethnicity of the immigrants.
According to a paper in PLOS ONE, the journal in which their findings are published, bioarchaeology is a new and underfunded field of study, but the clarity of its results are like none other. The exciting about archaeology to those on the outside looking in, is the fact that their research often takes archaeologists to remote parts of the world where they interact with cultures past and present. But these researchers likely spend a great majority of their time in a lab. Not the kind of place you’d expect to find the Indian Jones type, but the real answers about the past are coming from in the modern methods.
With DNA studies and other bioarchaeological analysis, the ancient world is opening up in ways never thought possible.
[Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images]