Letter in British Archaeology – HOW PC WAS HADRIAN’S WALL?

Posted August 3rd, 2014 by Dylan

This letter appeared in British Archaeology, edited to remove the points made in the earlier sections which were similar to those made in letters published from other contributors in the same issue.

British Archaeology is the magazine of the Council for British Archaeology. editor@britarch.ac.uk


Dear Mike Pitts,

It was disappointing to see Richard Benny’s article: Roman Wall: Barrier or Bond? (BA July 2004) perpetrating so many errors. To be fair, many of them were errors of omission: the broader picture was ignored.

The garrison of Aballava (Burgh by Sands) on Hadrian’s Wall were, to judge by their name – Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum – originally recruited in North Africa. Specifically they would have come from the area of modern Morocco and Algeria and would thus have been no more black than are the modern descendants of the native Berber population. Similarly, modern Libyans are not particularly dark-skinned, and it is somewhat ludicrous to place the ‘African Emperor’, Septimius Severus, on a list of 100 greatest Black Britons when he is highly unlikely to have been black (compare his statue with the glass vessel on pages 10 & 11) and certainly wasn’t British. He did die here, if that’s any consolation.

It is quite true to assert, as Richard Benny does, that archaeology is unlikely to have life affirming effects on people (I wonder what is, however), but it is a little depressing to discover that ethnic communities in Britain today can only develop an interest in it if they think their ancestors might have been involved. Thank goodness that British archaeologists have never taken this attitude with regard to past cultures, and, for instance in modern Sudan, often struggle to capture information on former great, Black African civilisations before the current government destroys the evidence with river damming projects.

It is quite likely that the population of Roman Britain would have included numbers of  Nubians and other black Africans, as well as ‘Moors’; Syrians; Scythians; Arabs; Mesopotamians; Germans; Greeks; Egyptians; and even the odd Italian! When it comes to slavery, however, one should recall that the homeland of the Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum was also home to the notorious ‘Sallee’ pirates who provided the Moroccan courts with tens of thousands of white British slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. Further, it is often passed-over in studies of the slave trade that the greatest traders in Black Africans were always the Arabs: the suppression of that trade in Egypt being one of the unpopular acts of the British there in the early 20th century.

There are thus, from Richard Benny’s start point, a number of very useful points to be made. It is somewhat concerning to see such a partial exploration of the issues given front page/lead article status in the organ of the CBA.

Yours truly,