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By the end of the first century AD the Roman Empire covered the majority of modern-day Europe. Britain (and Chester) situated at its northwest fringes were connected to this colossal machine by road, river, and sea. The migration and mobility of people and objects across vast swathes of what is now modern Europe and the Near East led to the fusion of cultural traditions and beliefs. A cultural melting pot existed under the umbrella of Rome. The politics, administration, economy, and social organisation of this huge empire were complex and multi-layered. Regional differences existed as did some commonalities including the Latin language. Many objects, architectural features and ways of life would have been familiar anywhere in the Roman world yet distinct localised differences existed.

In Chester (or Deva Victrix) as it was known, life for many would have been based around the presence of the military. As one of Roman Britain’s permanent legionary fortresses, it not only functioned as a frontier base but as a point of entry into and out of the province, and for many, it was home; a place to live and work. Situated on the River Dee, with easy access out to the Irish Sea, the harbour area associated with the fortress appears to have been established early on in the settlement’s lifespan.  For example, the western canabae (civilian settlement just outside the fortress walls), was made up of riverside buildings giving way to high quality residential buildings. Evidence suggests that jetties and landings protruded out across the marshy inlets of the riverside (now the Roodee racecourse), allowing access to the deeper channel of the river. Although as time went on the river channel silted up, flat bottomed barges and small vessels could still travel up the Dee to Deva, perhaps offloading goods and people from larger vessels docking at Meols on the Wirral peninsula.  This meant that not only soldiers could make good lives for themselves in and around Chester. Evidence tells us that traders, skilled craftspeople, engineers, doctors, wives and children also lived out their daily lives within the vicinity of the fortress.

The archaeological evidence from Deva also indicates a diverse population in terms of migration and mobility, although in a globalised world like the Roman Empire, such a pattern is not dissimilar from many towns, forts and fortresses across the provinces. As archaeologists we can trace migration and mobility through a range of approaches and evidence types including distributions of ‘exotic’ objects and materials (in that they do not move on their own and people must be there to transport them), as well as the remains of distinct cultural practices such as cooking styles, and the clothes and jewellery people wore. We can also use funerary evidence including the skeletal remains themselves in addition to the treatment and commemoration of the dead. For example, the recording of ethnic origins on tombstones has been recognised as an important element of commemorative identity. While there are caveats and limitations to each type of evidence when using them to consider race, ethnicity, migration and mobility, the nationally significant collection of Roman tombstones from Chester provides an interesting starting point.

If you’re in Chester I would certainly recommend checking out the tombstone of soldier Marcus Aurelius Alexander, who is commemorated on a tombstone here in the Grosvenor Museum Collections. He was one of the most senior people in the fortress (the Prefectus Castrorum or camp prefect) who was in charge of its administration.  He was therefore the third most senior commander of the Roman legion after the legate (legatus) and the senior military tribune (tribunus laticlavius). He was also acting commander of the legion in the absence of the legatus. The inscription records that he was a Syrian by birth and came from Osroene, a district which is now in eastern Turkey. The presence of his tombstone here in Chester, the place of his death, is just one piece of the giant jigsaw puzzle that presents a picture of Chester’s global Roman past.

 

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undergraduate History and Archaeology