The Archaeology of Black Britain: Approaches, Methods and Possible Solutions”
Case study: North African soldiers at Aballava (Burgh-by-Sands)
Richard Paul Benjamin, Postgraduate Researcher University of Liverpool
Alan M. Greaves, Lecturer University of Liverpool
There is an on-going debate regarding the presence or otherwise of black people in Britain in antiquity. The basic problem with this kind of research has always been the reliability and availability of source materials and the analytical methods by which we study them.
The most celebrated example of black Romans in Britain, is the case of the Roman military garrison at the fort of Burgh-by-Sands, on Hadrian’s wall in Cumbria. A fourth century inscription tells us that the Roman auxiliary unit Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum was stationed at Aballava, modern day Burgh-by-Sands. This unit had been mustered in the Roman province of Mauretania in North Africa, modern Morocco.
It is often forgotten that Rome’s African provinces were some of its most important and it has been suggested that there may have been a black Roman Emperor (Septimus Severus). There are in fact several inscriptions found in Britain that mention the Emperor Septimus Severus. It is generally accepted that Septimus Severus was born in Numidia, also in North Africa and there is the possibility that the unit Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum was brought to Britain around AD 193-211 during his reign.
It was recently suggested that African DNA might be found to be present in the local populations near to Hadrian’s Wall, for instance Burgh-by-Sands. However, this would not conclusively show that the black Roman soldiers on the wall intermarried with the local population because of the problem of admixture. Admixture is a process whereby the DNA of a population becomes diluted over time and it cannot be shown at what period in time that dilution took place.
Sir Walter Bodmer, a leading geneticist, believes that it would be exceedingly unlikely that any connection between North African soldiers stationed on the Wall could be detected within modern day inhabitants of the area. It would be difficult to distinguish between the genetic traits of North African Roman soldiers and that of any later influxes of African DNA into the local gene pool.
Although the contribution of advances in the study of DNA to other areas of archaeological research has been enormous, this has not been the case here. Archaeologists are forced, until there can be further excavations at the site to recover skeletons of the soldiers or advances in DNA technology as a result of the Human Genome Project, to continue relying on the older and more “scholarly” pursuit of epigraphy (the study of inscriptions) to answer these questions.
The Roman fort at Burgh-by-Sands (ancient Aballava) lay at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall in Cumbria. The site was occupied from around the second to fourth centuries AD. Our evidence for this unit consists of an inscription found in 1934 at the village of Beaumont two miles east of Burgh-by-Sands on the banks of the River Eden and a passage in the Notita Dignitatum, a Roman list of officials and dignitaries.
The Beaumont inscription, which is written in the stylised Latin of a standard Roman military inscription, was carved into an altar stone dedicated to the god Jupiter (king of the gods). It reads:
“To Jupiter Best and Greatest and the Majesty of our two emperors, to the genius (guardian spirit) of the numerus (unit) of Aurelian Moors, Valerianus’ and Gallienus’ own, Caelius Vibianus, cohort-tribune in charge of the above-mentioned numerus, [set up this altar] through the agency of Julius Rufinus, senior centurion.” (See Fig.1)
As the name Aurelianorum suggests the unit was named in honour of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180). Recently popularised in the film ‘Gladiator’. It is unlikely that the unit was formed just to be placed in one of the Empire’s farthest postings, and they had probably already seen active service before their posting to Burgh-by-Sands. More than likely the unit will have been blooded in battles in Germany (Germania) and the Danube (Dacia), where inscriptions mention a unit of Moors involved in these campaigns. The Roman Empire was constantly at war during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and therefore many units across the Empire will have been destroyed or weakened by battle.
Our second piece of evidence is the Notitia Dignitatum, a list of Roman dignitaries that includes the passage, ” prefect of the numerous of Aurelian Moors at Aballava.” Together, these two pieces of evidence firmly place a unit of Moors on Hadrian’s Wall, although the precise date of the occupation at the fort of Aballava is unknown. Their exact number is also unknown, although a small fort like Aballava could hold upwards of 500 men. We do not know where they were stationed before Aballava or where they went afterwards, but we do know that they were there.
It is not at all well known that North African Roman soldiers were stationed on Hadrian’s Wall. Although it is tempting to think of the local inhabitants of Burgh-by-Sands as still having genetic traits of those black soldiers this cannot be confirmed. Sir Walter Bodmer does not categorically dismiss the possibility but he outlines the difficulties that are faced in trying to show this.
For us to securely link a unit of North African soldiers with the site at Burgh-by-Sands we must still rely on more traditional methods of scholarly investigation, in this case epigraphy. The inscription and textual evidence available at present brings us to the conclusion that a unit of North Africans were stationed at Burgh-by-Sands but we cannot show that that they intermarried whilst stationed there. For us to find African artefacts and the DNA of African soldiers themselves a full-scale archaeological excavation would have to be organised at the site. Only a methodical and modern archaeological excavation at the fort has the possibility of furthering our knowledge into a fascinating episode of the early black presence in British history.
- African Roman Excavations in York
- Roman Wall Barrier or Bond: Richard Benjamin on British Archaeology
- Septimus Severus
- Africans in Roman York
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