Two news items appeared in the popular press during the second half of September, 2016 that addressed recent discoveries of possible East Asian migrants in a Roman period cemetery in London and Late Roman coins found in excavations of a Medieval castle on the Japanese island of Okinawa. While some aspects of the initial excavation reporting was misinterpreted in the popular press, these discoveries do fit into a larger pattern of exchange between the Mediterranean world and the Far East, including not only China but also Vietnam, Korea and Japan. In this brief article, I’d like to examine some of the inaccuracies in the recent news reporting and explore the implications of this surprisingly widespread pattern of exchange spanning distances of as much as 6,000 miles.
News outlets ran stories beginning on September 23 that attempted to summarize the results of a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, in which the authors had raised the possibility, based on a small sample of Roman period skeletons excavated in London (Roman Londinium), that a couple of the bodies might have had a far eastern origin. Unfortunately, popular reporting of scientific papers, and especially the often sensationalist headlines that result, tends to be misleading. Bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove promptly wrote an article for Forbes magazine in which she pointed out the limitations of the initial study and the ways in which the results had been misinterpreted. In her view, put simply, while contact between ancient China and the Mediterranean world certainly did occur, in the form of trade and even diplomatic missions, and that with further study it was quite possible that human remains from the Mediterranean might be found in east Asia and visa-versa, the rush to assume that limited evidence might suggest a Chinese origin for two skeletons in a small sample from Roman London was premature.
A few days later, a flurry of news stories appeared covering the finding of a small number of Roman bronze coins of the Constantinian Dynasty during excavations at the medieval Katsuren Castle on the Island of Okinawa. Initial reports in the Japan Times online and other news outlets showed images of a 17th Century Ottoman coin also found at the site, with a caption indicating it was Roman (see image below). The Japan Times corrected this error the next day with an updated photo and caption. But the initial error underscores the need for popular news outlets reporting on archaeological or other science stories to fully understand their material before publication, something that rarely occurs.
The find on Okinawa is puzzling, given the difference in age between the coins themselves and the period in which the Castle was flourishing, a span of nearly a thousand years. A few possibilities present themselves: That the Castle has a much earlier origin than previously supposed and the coins have somehow been moved by burrowing animals out of their original context in earlier layers, to be found in the Medieval layers being excavated now. That the coins had been kept in the castle for centuries as exotic curiosities. That the coins had slowly traveled eastward over a period of centuries (less likely). That the coins had been part of the cargo of a ship wrecked on the Island’s coast and found by locals centuries later during a low tide or after a storm dislodged them from the buried wreckage. Perhaps future seasons of excavation at the Castle site will offer clues.
While the Okinawa find is unusual in that the Roman coins are so much earlier than the strata in which they were found, artifacts from the ancient Mediterranean world, from the later Hellenistic Period on through the Roman and Byzantine, are surprisingly common finds in east Asian contexts. The Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia and China were not unknown to the later Hellenistic kingdoms or the Roman Empire. One literary source illustrates this in detail, while still leaving tantalizing questions. This is the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a trade and maritime navigation manual probably written in the mid-1st Century AD by an unknown author, and surviving as a 10th Century Byzantine copy. The Erythraean Sea encompassed, to the ancient Greek speaking world, what we now know as the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. The work is so detailed that the trade routes and ports mentioned must have already been well known and frequently visited by the time the manuscript was written. It includes clear references to the Himyarite and Sabaean Kingdoms in southern Arabia, the ports of Bharuch in Northwest India and Kochi in Southwest India, and after rounding the tip of India, other ports that may be associated with the Ganges River Delta and beyond in what is now Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma). These most distant locales are more difficult to pinpoint on a modern map due to their ancient place names being so obscure.
Of course, sea routes were not the only method of contact between these widely separated cultures. The famed Silk Route, which was actually a network of many routes through Central Asia, connected the Roman Empire with the Chinese Han Empire (205 BC – 220 AD). The vast Roman output of gold coinage through Indian intermediaries for Chinese silks and Indian and Southeast Asian spices is proof of the frequency and volume of this two way trade. Many hoards of Roman gold coins have been found in southern India. But perhaps the most spectacular evidence of the reciprocal nature of trade along this land route is the Begram Treasure from Afghanistan, found in a Kushan royal storehouse at the Begram site. Begram had been the capital of one of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdoms. By the time the treasures found in this warehouse were deposited, the site had become capital of the Kushan Empire. Found there were classical bronzes and Romano-Egyptian painted glass vessels, probably made in Alexandria in the first decades after Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire, alongside Han Chinese lacquer boxes and ivory carvings from India.
Finds of Roman antiquities still much farther east are surprisingly common. Han Dynasty Chinese tombs have turned up many examples of Roman gold, silver, bronze and glass artifacts. A particularly striking example, pictured below, is a large 2nd or early 3rd Century Roman gilt silver plate featuring a central image of Dionysus and his associated animal, a panther. This example was found by chance during construction work in Gansu Province, China.
The diffusion of blown and cast glass across what is now southern Russia and Northern China , which was highly valued by the semi-nomadic cultures of the Central Asian steppe and by far eastern cultures that had not yet adopted glass blowing, helps explain the presence of Roman glass vessels in the Silla Dynasty royal tombs of Korea. Excavated in the early 1970s, Silla royal tomb number 98 held the remains of King Nae-Mool and his Queen. The Silla Kingdom was focused on the Southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula yet the tomb goods originated in the Roman and Sassanian Empires and parts of Central Asia. Among these was a glass ewer and several glass cups, all of typically Late Roman type. Their rarity and value to the Silla royalty may be judged by the fact that the damaged handle on the ewer, pictured below, had been repaired using gold wire. This finding was not unique. Several other examples of Roman and Sassanian glass, including an early Roman Millefiori glass cup now in the National Museum of Korea, have been found in Gyeongju tombs.
This article began with a report on Roman coins found on Okinawa and we end it with impressive finds of Roman period glass in Japan. Having spanned the entire Asian Continent with a breadcrumb trail of Roman and related antiquities, the journey ends facing the Pacific Ocean. In 2012, researchers excavating a 5th Century tomb near Kyoto found three Roman glass beads among the burial accessories. Chemical analysis confirmed their origin as Roman, with traces of natron in their makeup. More spectacularly, in November, 2014, Japanese archaeologists announced the recover of two ancient glass vessels, essentially intact, from a high status 5th Century tomb in Nara Prefecture. Chemical and stylistic analysis made clear that the elegant blue glass dish was from the Roman Empire, while the painted glass bowl originated in the Sassanian Empire, Rome’s great rival. Unlike the puzzling coin find on Okinawa, these objects seem to have been interred with their owner’s remains within decades of their manufacture. At the time, Japanese glass making technology was limited to small, opaque, bean shaped glass beads, so large colored and clear glass vessels of this type would have been highly prized, just as they were in China and Korea.
No doubt, rapid improvement in bioarchaeological techniques will soon permit the identification of human remains in seemingly unlikely places, such as the possible Asian remains in Roman London. Combined with continuing finds of material culture such as those listed here, it may be possible in the future to dispel the old notions of a lack of mobility and communications in the ancient world.
Apart from the news stories mentioned here, which are easily found via web search, here are links to Kristine Killgrove’s thoughtful, cautionary article in Forbes – http://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2016/09/23/chinese-skeletons-in-roman-britain-not-so-fast/#1c9329b9ef9b
And to the Roman glass vessels in the National Museum of Korea – https://www.museum.go.kr/site/eng/relic/search/view?relicId=4452