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Editor Mike Pitts
Roman wall: Barrier or bond?
When asked in a recent survey about preserving historic buildings and artefacts, a black woman responded â€˜That is the white manâ€™sâ€™. Richard Benjamin believes passionately that study of Hadrianâ€™s Wall could herald a new era of Black British heritage
I am an archaeologist. Nothing strange in that you might say: but more specifically, I am a Black British archaeologist. My interest in the past began when I was at primary school in Tadcaster (Calcaria) deep in the heart of North Yorkshire. As we lived near York I was taken to visit the newly opened Jorvik Viking Centre. From then on I was hooked. My parents began buying me colourful books for birthdays and Christmas about archaeologists and ancient civilisations. I was fascinated by the discovery of Tutankhamunâ€™s tomb by Carter, Troy by Schliemann and Knossos by Evans. The Incas, Vikings, Egyptians, Romans and the Greeks, I read about them all.
At secondary school my tutors advised me to forget about pursuing a career in archaeology, as only 5% of graduates ever went on to get a job. Reluctantly I enrolled on a BA Urban Policy/Community and Race Relations course. It looked at theoretical approaches to race, ethnicity and culture and examined the social and political implications of ethnic diversity in modern Britain, one of the first of its kind in the country. For me, it turned out to be a fortunate move.
We had a weekly lecture on African history by a Ghanaian scholar called Isaac Mensah. He was greatly influenced by the work of African-centred scholars, such as Molefi Kete Asante, who oppose the notion of Europe as teacher and Africa as pupil. Asante wrote the seminal work Afrocentricity (1989), which looked to make Africa and Africans, not Europe and Europeans, the central figures in any research. More broadly, we covered the entire African diaspora.
I was 20 years old. It was the first time I had heard anything about Africa other than colonialism, the slave trade or apartheid. Instead we learnt about the kingdoms of Axum, Mali and Songhay, great African leaders and the many African American inventors.
I realised there was a void in British archaeology and heritage that needed to be filled if I was to understand my own identity. If I wanted to learn about the heritage of Black people in this country I would have to do it myself. So when in 1997 I began an MA in archaeology, I was inspired not just by a childhood interest or even a career path. It was more important than that.
I recently completed a PhD at the University of Liverpool titled Black Identity & Social Inclusion through Archaeology & Heritage. I looked at how archaeology and heritage in Britain propagate the image of Black people as newcomers, not active citizens in British history. I collated statistics to indicate a dearth of Black people at several levels of archaeology. They do not study archaeology at universities; they are absent from professional archaeological organisations; and they are scarce as members of archaeology or heritage societies. My research proposed how a â€˜utilitarian archaeologyâ€™, that is, an archaeology of Black Britain, can be beneficial for the Black community in several ways. It would not only lead to a greater understanding of Black identity, but would increase inclusion: academically, professionally and socially.
One archaeological site in particular could herald the discipline of Black British archaeology. Many Black British lifestyle and history websites refer to a unit of north African Moors, Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum, stationed at the Roman military garrison at Burgh-by-Sands (ancient Aballava/Aballaba) at the western end of Hadrianâ€™s Wall in Cumbria.
The first time I heard of this unit was at a Newcastle conference called Myths & Mirrors. An interested novice, not a university or even an amateur archaeologist, gave a paper on Blacks on Hadrianâ€™s Wall. The important factor about this presentation was that a Black Briton, who had an interest in Black heritage, gave it. You could say they were going it alone, as they would not have been assisted by mainstream archaeology and heritage. There is no neon light saying â€˜This way for Black British heritageâ€™.
So who were the Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum and why are they so important to the Black British community? Our key evidence for this unit is a 4th century inscription, found in 1934 at the village of Beaumont two miles east of Burgh-by-Sands on the banks of the River Eden, and known as the Beaumont inscription. Translated from the Latin it reads:
To Jupiter Best and Greatest and the Majesty of our two Emperors, to the Genius [guardian spirit] of the numerus of Aurelian Moors, Valerianusâ€™ and Gallienusâ€™ own, Caelius Vibianus, cohort-tribune in charge of the above-mentioned numerus, [set up this altar] through the agency of Julius Rufinus, senior centurion.
The Notitia Dignitatum, a Roman list of officials and dignitaries, also mentions the unit. It reads: praefectus numeri Maurorum Aurelianorum, Aballaba, â€˜prefect of the numerus of Aurelian Moors, at Aballavaâ€™. â€˜Aurelianorumâ€™ suggests that the unit was named in honour of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (for the film buffs, Richard Harris in Gladiator!) c AD 161-80. So we can say with some confidence that the unit occupied the site of Burgh-by-Sands around the 2nd to 4th centuries AD. The precise date of the occupation of the fort of Aballava by the Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum is unknown, as is the exact number of north African soldiers stationed there, although a small fort like Aballava could hold upwards of 500 men.
It has been said that the unit was probably mustered before it reached Burgh-by-Sands, possibly in the Danube, and then brought to Britain by the emperor Septimius Severus c AD 208. This is very interesting, as Severus himself was a north African, born at Leptis Magna in Tripolitana, now part of present day Libya. In fact Severus is held in such high regard by the Black British community that he has recently been included on a list of the greatest 100 Black Britons.
In 1999 Mike McCarthy of Bradford University, with the Carlisle Archaeological Unit, conducted an archaeological evaluation of Burgh-by-Sands. The last major excavation there was in the 1920s. McCarthy told me that â€˜research into an African presence is of interest and is ripe for studyâ€™.
To link a unit of north African soldiers securely with Burgh-by-Sands we must presently rely on more textual methods of scholarly investigation, such as epigraphy. Another option is to test for interaction between Roman soldiers and local Britons, by searching for African DNA in the local gene pool. There was freedom of movement for civilians and those in administration or in the armed forces. Discharge certificates (diplomata) indicate that veteran soldiers settled in Britain. â€˜It is doubtfulâ€™, Anthony Birley has written, â€˜whether the population of the country has ever been more cosmopolitan than it was in the Roman periodâ€™.
Soldiers would have had plenty of money to spend in native settlements on the outskirts of the forts. Not only would they have looked to buy beer and wine and different foods from their normal rations, but they would also have sought entertainment in brothels. Many would have probably wanted more permanent relationships, in an area that they had been in for many years during their tour of duty. Children of Roman soldiers became Roman citizens through descent. In various Roman provinces, locals often entered the army themselves. Auxiliary units, auxilia, the cavalry alae and the infantry, cohortes, all would have had a number of locals present in their ranks.
Another cutting edge technique that could be used is stable isotope analysis. This has been one of the most valuable archaeological developments in recent years. The premise is that strontium and oxygen isotope ratios found in human skeletal tissues, for instance dental enamel, can provide evidence for the location of childhood residence. The water that we drink depends on the area in which we live, affected by the surrounding geological factors and climate. If we were to find human skeletal remains at Burgh-by-Sands or other sites that have epigraphical or written evidence for an African presence, we could attempt to determine the peopleâ€™s homeland.
Burgh-by-Sands could also lead Britain into one of the most contested areas of contemporary archaeological thought: â€˜Africanismsâ€™. The debate centres on the premise that Africans did not abandon all their traditions and cultures on arrival in the New World and beyond. Through domestic items, religious ceremonies, music and oral histories we can see direct relations with past and present African cultures. Burgh-by-Sands would not only enhance its claim to be the primary Black British archaeological site, but it could offer academics involved in the debate on Africanisms in the United States an European perspective. The site would immediately attract international interest.
So how might we see Africanisms, or African cultural traits, in the material record at Burgh-by-Sands? The most probable examples would be the type of cookware that may have been used. For instance, northern African nomads, in the past and still today, would often use a clay tagine (or tajine), a cooking pot with a conical lid enclosure acting like an oven, used for making meat stews. North African Roman pottery, in the shape of amphorae and red-slipped wares, has already been found in Britain.
The Mauretanian Dressel 30 amphora, produced in Algeria, was distributed principally in the 3rd century AD around north-west Europe and the western Mediterranean. In Britain, the majority of examples so far have been found in the south, but this does not mean it is impossible that others will be found elsewhere. Red-slipped ware, on the other hand, was from Tunisia and widely circulated from the 2nd to the 5th century AD, also around the Mediterranean and Romeâ€™s north-west provinces. It has been found in much greater numbers in Britain than north African amphorae and there are examples in the north-west of Britain at the Romano-British settlement of Bowness-on-Solway (Maia), the second largest on Hadrianâ€™s Wall, and just four miles from Burgh-by-Sands. Both these types of Roman pottery were in production and circulated at the same time that the Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum was stationed in Britain.
The proximity of the fort and surrounding Vicus to Burgh-by-Sands means that there is a good chance that parts of the village, such as St Michaelâ€™s church, have been built using recycled Roman materials. Stone from the fort was still being quarried in the 14th century. What makes St Michaelâ€™s church particularly fascinating is that in the belfry there are two friezes which seemingly depict rare and exotic creatures. Now it is pure supposition that the friezes have any African connection, but they are not mentioned in any literature: there is scope for further study.
Information needs to be collated so that we can see the true extent of an African presence in British antiquity. One only has to look at the English Heritage study Attitudes towards the Heritage (2000) to realise that a Burgh-by-Sands is sorely needed. Some 1,870 White, 71 Asian and 44 Black members of the public were interviewed by MORI. Respondents believed heritage played two main roles: to preserve the past and to educate children, the latter regarded as â€˜very importantâ€™ by 81%. The survey showed that most Blacks felt alienated from British heritage. One Black female made a very strong point when asked if she wanted to preserve buildings, sites and artefacts. â€˜That is the white manâ€™sâ€™, she replied.
I am certain that there are many archaeologists, professional or otherwise, who believe that archaeology cannot have life affirming affects on people: yes, archaeology and heritage are interesting, nay exciting, but no more. I disagree and disagree strongly. Archaeology and heritage, the way they are taught and presented, have enormous ramifications for Black communities and wider British society.
Burgh-by-Sands might well have been a distant outcrop of the Roman Empire, but to those of us interested in implementing a â€˜utilitarian archaeologyâ€™, that is, an archaeology both relevant and useful to members of the Black British community, it is of great importance. Burgh-by-Sands rubbishes the viewpoint that a Black presence in Britain began with the Atlantic slave trade or the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush from the Caribbean in the 1950s. The site not only assists Black Britons to have an interest in archaeology and heritage, but to reshape their very identity. Archaeology can show that Britain since antiquity has been a diverse, multi-ethnic and multicultural nation, something that needs remembering more than ever today. Burgh-by-Sands has the potential to be a revolutionary archaeological site: it could herald a new era of Black British heritage.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005