It has long been known that the Chinese and Roman empires were aware of each other’s existence, and even carried out a trade with each other — Roman coins have been unearthed in Eastern Asia, and Chinese wares have been encountered in Roman graves. However, the commonly held belief was that this interaction was generally indirect, with trade being handled through ‘middlemen’ kingdoms between China and Rome, such as the Parthian Empire. There are only a tiny number of known cases of the Romans and Chinese making direct efforts to contact each other, and even fewer in the time period the Chinese visitors must have arrived in Britain.
In 97 AD a Chinese envoy named Gan Ying attempted to reach the Roman Empire but balked at the difficult crossing and turned back. Later, in 166 AD, Chinese records confirm that Roman diplomats arrived in China to establish an embassy. Two other diplomatic missions are known to have arrived in 226 and 284. After this, the Roman Empire did not send another for almost four hundred years, when the Byzantine Empire established one in 643.
Aside from the remains of a slave unearthed in Italy who showed evidence of Asian descent on his mother’s side, there are no known examples, or records, of members of the Chinese empire setting foot in ancient Rome. The discovery of Asian peoples inhabiting Roman London is wholly unprecedented.
The shapes of both skeleton’s skulls strongly suggest they were Asian in ethnicity, and examinations of their teeth show that they grew up somewhere much warmer than Britain.
Dr Rebecca Redfern, curator of human osteology at the Museum of London said: ‘This is absolutely phenomenal. This is the first time in Roman Britain we’ve identified people with Asian ancestry’.
Due to the absence of any items buried alongside both men, archaeologists can only speculate as to why they ended up so far from home. Dr Redfern theorised that the men may be slaves or descended from slaves, nothing that “there were slave-trade connections between India and China, and India and Rome”. Alternatively, it is plausible that the men were merchants, as London was an important trading hub for the empire and would have made an attractive destination for traders.
It is also unclear as to if both men came directly from China, or if they were part of a group that migrated from China to Britain over multiple generations.
– Greg Taylor, Correspondent (Science)