Following the recent Twitter rants about the colour of people’s skin in Roman Britain, I look here at the power and problems with archaeological imagery relating to skin colour. Linking it to my blog, I focus on funerary evidence and a funerary representation.
The many challenges of archaeological illustration
Archaeological illustrators have one of the toughest (and certainly the most readily criticised) of jobs in the heritage and archaeology world. Their role is not simply to depict ‘what we know’, but to go beyond and stimulate the imagination and engage wide and varied audiences. Artworks are made for specific purposes and audiences, to make specific points and to educate and communicate. Yet they also acquire afterlives if used again and again in different media, often confusing their original intention and gaining stories and significances far beyond the artist’s.
So even the simplest of images depicting the past requires the artist to make a complex series of choices, ideally informed by available and detailed archaeological and historical evidence. This relates to what is portrayed and what is not portrayed. Often this reveals the explicit aims of the artist and those commissioning the art, sometimes it might reflect the agendas of funding bodies and government or wider social aspirations and pressures. With over 30 years of critical attention to the interactions and challenges of using art and archaeology, it seems that many still don’t get the complex process of envisioning the past drawing on archaeological evidence, and also that art should not be read directly as ‘how the past was’.
Even a cartoon or sketch has to make complex decisions about perspective, and how to portray past environments (including climate, seasons, weather), landscapes (fields, roads, vegetation, wildlife, domesticated animals etc), architectures (sacred, secular – ceremonial, quotidian), monuments and material cultures. This certainly applies to funerals: a current interest of mine and in the past being how we convey senses of the complex multi-staged and multi-sensorial ceremonies associated with the disposal of the dead in past societies.
It becomes more sensitive still when we consider how the human body is depicted. The human body’s appearance is the obsession of the modern world, and how archaeological artists represent bodies involves complex choices about clothing, stances, gestures and expressions and relationships between figures. More challenging still are the choices made regarding details of health, disease and disability, stature and build, cleanliness and grooming, hairstyles and body modifications (including piercings and tattoos), as well as the application of cosmetics and body-paint.
Perhaps more than any of these details, how artists portray age, gender and class in the past is a key concern for heritage professionals and archaeologists. So often, choices are governed by our agendas and social norms. The history of archaeological illustrations reveal the many biases relating to perceptions of ‘savagery’, ‘barbarity’ and ‘civilization’, including through the lens of (for instance) gender, as the work of Stephenie Moser has clearly shown.
So, on all fronts, careful and sustained dialogue between artists and archaeologists can help to not only ensure ‘accuracy’ (as far as that is ever possible), but to ensure misleading and anachronistic representations are avoided. Yet also, art should stimulate new ways of thinking and questioning the past.
Hence, the most sensitive and debated area of representing the past of all is, of course, ‘ethnicity’. Hence, it is unsurprising when migration and ‘race’ remain foci of our political discourse, that how we represent the people of Britain’s past comes to the fore in terms of ‘ethnicity’ more than any other aspect. So it was ‘ethnicity’ that became the focus of a recent Twitter storm.
On ‘Ethnicity’ and the Twitter rant
Before I go any further, I want to flag up my concern at how skin-tone is accepted by most commentators as an acceptable gloss for biodiversity and in turn mapped onto ‘ethnicity’. As an archaeologist and an early medievalist, ‘ethnicity’ is much debated term, but hardly anyone in academic circles would consider the ancient or medieval worlds as constituted by ‘ethnic’ groups who defined themselves or others primarily in terms of physical appearance, let alone skin tone. Instead, ethnicity is considered a complex and contextual negotiation of identity deploying varied media including language, costume and material culture alongside kinship and place of origin (among many other things). In any case, it is a blessing of archaeology that skin colour rarely survives, and we are forced beyond the modern obsession with the shades of skin to engage with multi-faceted dimensions of identity negotiation and transformation.
The Twitter ‘debate’ obviously considered none of this. It was sparked by the reaction of one commentator who claimed the BBC was motivated by ‘political correctness’ to portray a dark-skinned pairing of father and son in a cartoon about Roman Britain. The commentator was publicly humiliated on social media for his flagrant ignorance of the history and archaeology of Roman Britain. It is widely known in academia and in popular texts of the last 2-3 decades that Britannia not only built upon complex interactions between Iron Age peoples along the Atlantic seaboard, but saw the arrival of range of many new people from across the Empire and beyond – including soldiers, merchants and slaves. Crudely, this can be readily seen as an ‘ethnically diverse’ society. While the far-right commentator was dogged in insisting Roman Britain was ‘white’ (whatever that means), there is palpable archaeological and historical evidence to the contrary.
The BBC Cartoon
I think the BBC website was misleading to suggest that their cartoon portrayed a ‘typical’ Roman family, since the cartoon itself flagrantly showed this was not the case. It showed a govenor and his son (i.e. the elite of the elite) with darker skin as part of a wider complex society and empire stretching from Hadrian’s Wall to North Africa and the Middle East. Here’s the BBC cartoon.
The most intelligent review of the ‘debate’ can be found here , but it is notable that the discussion focuses on the archaeological and historical evidence for ‘ethnic diversity’ (misleadingly seen in modern terms in terms of physical appearance and geographical origins). Seemingly there has been no discussion of the power of images to both represent the past in striking ways, but also to challenge stereotypes and preconceptions.
Most ludicrous of all, and revealing the ability of images to confuse the ill-educated, the alt-right protagonist launched a video insulting the physical appearance of those historians and commentators that derided his ignorance of Roman Britain. Moreover, the video attempted to ‘prove’ how ‘white’ Roman Britain was by depicting a selection 19th and 20th-century illustrations of Romano-British ‘whites’. This shows a startling the lack of visual literacy at play alongside historical ignorance, since claiming that somehow these existing visualisations are ‘better’ for showing the whiteness of Roman Britain only goes to show the small baby steps we are only now beginning to take to critically appraise such images.
The inability to ‘read’ images is staggering and inexcusible in the early 21st-century, where art is deployed in complex and varied ways via the media to provoke reactions and challenge stereotypes. The problem is: all ‘sides’ in the debate have accepted the BBC cartoon as their prompt, rather than considering how such images can positively and fundamentally challenge and transform public perceptions: the very heart of what the debate was about.
A Lady of York
From an Archaeodeath perspective and to develop this line of enquiry, I want to point readers to a striking representation of a funeral scene from Roman York, commissioned as part of a broader project on diasporas involving archaeologists at the University of Reading. The artist, Aaron Watson, tried to depict not only the diverse and complex range of material cultures and costumes involved in the funeral, and the ‘mixed-race’ appearance of the deceased individual, but something of the diverse appearances – age, gender, as well as what might be regarded crudely as ‘ethnic diversity’ – of the urban population of York attending her funeral towards the end of Roman Britain.
This depiction has a archaeological and scientific basis. The results were published in the journal Antiquity by Leach et al. in 2010. If you can get past the cringeworthy abstract/commentary that the journal’s editor imposes on the paper, you find a detailed study of a single wealthy grave from Eboracum.
Grave ST60 from Sycamore Terrrace was a female aged 18-23 years at death, buried in a stone coffin with a range of artefacts. She was found in 1901: the skeleton was supine and extended, undisturbed and well-preserved. This is a late 4th-century grave, and artefacts included jet and elephant ivory braclets and other dress accessories. A blue glass jug was found, together with a glass mirror. An inscription on an openwork mount of bone, perhaps from a wooden casket, reads ‘Hail, sister, may you live in God’.
The facial characteristics were examined and regarded as showing a mixture of traits common in European (‘white’) and African (‘black’) populations. The authors propose a possible North African origin for the individual. Subsequently, this interpretation was partially supported by oxygen and strontium isotopic analysis of the bones, which hinted that the individual spent their youth in western Britain or a part of Western Europe or the Mediterranean. Putting the evidence together – distinctive burial rite, distinctive ancestry revealed in the cranium, and the isotopic data – the authors propose the individual was a ‘newcomer’.
The artwork created to reflect the evidence, but also to reveal its uncertainties, is powerful. It does not reveal ‘fact’, but convey possibilities. As the authors themselves state:
Aaron Watson, used shading across her face to highlight the difficulties of reconstructing skin colour and hair style, forcing us to look again, both at her and our preconceptions.
Whether intentionally or otherwise, Aaron’s image picks up on ideas I published in a 1999 paper in which I argued that funerals might have been key environs for the construction of ethnic identities in later Roman Britain. This is because, I argued, funerals drew diverse groups into proximity, establishing bonds of competition as well as collaboration during spatial and material dialogues with the dead. This serves to make the point that identities were forged through performance and practice, in which material culture was key.
The dead do not bury themselves, and so I don’t fully agree with Leach et al. that the exotic artefacts necessarily make the grave’s occupant ‘foreign’. However, these objects were implicated in the negotiation of her social memory and identity in death, drawing on items from the locality and from far-flung parts of the Empire. This does at the very least imply the individual had connections across the Empire and, even if they were themselves local, they were part of a social group with Mediterranean and perhaps North African connections.
Whatever this individual’s precise origins and appearance, Watson’s image allows us to imagine the complex relationships that brought people and artefacts together for the funeral of this lady.
For me, it is disturbing that the contribution of Mediterranean people (which by definition includes North African) people to Roman Britain is ‘controversial’ and even needs this kind of debate. However, this is the reality of Brexit Britain, where idiots are experts.
The debate reveals how our obsession with skin colour remains a problem and is readily equated with the common parlance for ‘ethnicity’. This is banded about not only by the far-right who are keen to see us as descendants of a primordial white culture. It is also deployed by those on the left and by academics of all ‘shades’ of political leaning. It is simplistic and misleading.
Simultaneously, the Twitter storm shows our overall lack of visual literacy. This is a key concern too. Images have power, but they distort and confuse if there is no understanding of how they are to be ‘read’.
While the Twitter storm might show how academics can counter the idiocies of the far right, it should also make us look to ourselves. I say this because it is very worrying from my perspective that the BBC’s choice to portray darker-skinned people in Roman Britain, remains rare. The ‘whiteness’ of the British past persists as a default. To occasionally portray a range of skin-tones as a superficial short-hand for the diversity of Roman Britain’s population is not tokenism, but an essential step for archaeological illustration. Who will be bold enough to try and tackle the contribution of people of colour to Britain’s past next? For there is a dire need for more attempts to do so, no matter what flak they receive in challenging pre-conceived notions about identity in the prehistoric and early historic past.
Thanks to Dr Aaron Watson for permission to use his image of the ‘Lady of York’ funeral.