Looking Death in the Face – Closing thoughts

Reconstruction of Roman Chester, displayed at the Grosvenor Museum. (Wikimedia Commons – By Łukasz Nurczyński – CC BY-SA 4.0)

When I embarked on this project, I didn’t realise the extent of the work I would have to do, in all honesty I expected to look at some tombstones and write a little bit about them. Instead I went on journey about how we view the past, and how we view ourselves.

Chester seemed like a good location to undertake the project, since the Grosvenor Museum holds such a large collection of Roman tombstones and due to a lack of skeletal remains (compared to somewhere like York), the concept of identity had only been lightly applied to people of Deva and attempts to work out who they were and where they came from weren’t at the forefront of the scholarship.

Chester proved to be just a starting point as I had to examine matching examples and contexts from across the Roman empire, places as fair apart as Essex, Greece, Gaul, Italy and the Ukraine in an attempt to understand what it meant to be a subject (and later citizen) of Rome.

As discussed in my previous post, the concept of identity has become an increasingly important part of how we think about ancient people and the connections that are made between different groups. The people of Deva and the tombstones they left behind became a gateway to understanding how the population of Roman Britain changed over time, both in terms of culture and the migrations of people across a large multicultural empire.

If I were start the project again, I’d like to define my aims more clearly than ‘Look at identity in Deva’, since it led to difficulties in writing and in time management. I would have liked to have finished the project by early October, and I think with clearer objectives that would have been achieved. The way that the project divided up was due natural progression rather than because of any sort of plan. Though I am happy with the divisions, as burial practise and iconography are two important ways of discussing ancient identity.

Choosing a single location to learn about is a good way of discovering the extent of migration and movement of people, this is particularly obvious in a military context, with legionaries coming from a variety of backgrounds. As I have already mentioned, the exploration of individual’s ancestries and identities meant I had to examine various parts of the Roman Empire looking at the different groups that made up the population of Roman Chester. This process would be interesting to repeat elsewhere in Roman Britain, but on a larger scale, to examine whether similar patterns and populations are present in other parts of the province.

My choice of evidence – tombstones and graves – initially seemed like a good choice because of the representation of the deceased on the stones and the possibility of surviving inscriptions that could also provide information. However, limiting myself to such a niche form of evidence limited what could be said about certain groups. Slavery in Roman Britain is a subject I wanted to talk about, but I was limited in the evidence I had, using other evidence would have helped my argument.

Tweets by CAS
Figure 1 A series of tweets from the Chester Archaeological Society in reply to my post about slavery, pointing out some of the weaknesses of using only one form of evidence

My work was definitely influenced by recent controversy over the ethnicity of the population of Roman Britain, and why this was so controversial. I think increased visibility of the diversity of Roman Britain is important to the discipline, because while it clear to those who study Roman Britain that the population wasn’t divided neatly into natives and conquerors, it is important to reiterate the evidence and the narratives involved that demonstrate the diversity of the province.

To conclude, the project was an attempt to show the diversity of a single fortress in one province. Focus on individuals is an interesting way to study the past, as presenting the life of a person who lived almost two thousand years ago is very engaging to an audience; the most popular post was the one about Curatia Dinysia and how she rose from slavery to wealth and her involvement in the cult of Bacchus. Tombstone evidence was a good gauge of the diversity of Chester and in some cases did help to provide an in-depth analysis of how they viewed themselves, but to gain a greater understanding of the population, more forms of evidence should have been examined since the tombstones represent only those with the means to provide one and the majority of the population would have had to do without. More evidence would provide a larger picture, and I think I will return to this subject later as a follow up to build on what I already have.

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