Asian Burial at Vagnari?

Very interesting item from the Independent:

A team of researchers announced a surprising discovery during a scholarly presentation in Toronto last Friday. The research team, based at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, has been helping to excavate an ancient Roman cemetery at the site of Vagnari in southern Italy. Led by Professor Tracy Prowse, they’ve been analyzing the skeletons found there by performing DNA and oxygen isotope tests.

The surprise is that the DNA tests show that one of the skeletons, a man, has an East Asian ancestry – on his mother’s side. This appears to be the first time that a skeleton with an East Asian ancestry has been discovered in the Roman Empire.

However, it seems like this contact between east and west did not go well.

Vagnari was an imperial estate during this time. The emperor controlled it and at least some of the workers were slaves. One of the tiles found at Vagnari is marked “Gratus” which means “slave” of the emperor. The workers produced iron implements and textiles. The landscape around them was nearly treeless, making the Italian summer weather all the worse.

The man with East Asian ancestry may well have been a slave himself. He lived sometime in the first to second century AD, in the early days of the Roman Empire. Much of his skeleton (pictured here) has not survived. The man’s surviving grave goods consist of a single pot (which archaeologists used to date the burial). To top things off someone was buried on top of him – with a superior collection of grave goods.

Much of the cemetery has yet to be excavated, but indications so far suggest that his contemporaries were mostly local individuals. Archaeologists have dug up 70 skeletons from the Vagnari cemetery and oxygen isotope tests have shown that more than 80 per cent of the people were born at or near this estate.

“How this particular individual ended up down in Vagnari is an intriguing story and that’s what makes this find very exciting,” said team member Dr. Jodi Barta, who analyzed the DNA.

DNA Testing

The researchers determined his ancestry by analyzing his mitochondrial DNA – material that is passed down from mother to offspring.

As DNA is passed down from generation to generation there are mutations. People who are related to each other will have similar changes – allowing researchers to put them into broad “haplogroups,” that tend to relate to geographical areas.

This technique has been used to map the spread of humans throughout the world.

The man found in the cemetery has DNA that belongs to what scientists called haplogroup D. “The haplogroup itself has this East Asian origin, it’s not something that’s found in past European populations – the origin of this haplogroup is East Asia,” said Dr. Barta.

This technique does have limitations. Because it only tests DNA from his mother’s side, his paternal ancestry is not known. The team also cannot say where specifically in East Asia his mum’s ancestors are from. There “is absolutely no way that you can put that fine a point on it” with the evidence at hand said Barta. “Unless we can extract nuclear DNA and add that to the line of evidence that we’ve got,” said Professor Prowse.

Also the scientists cannot say how recently he, or his ancestors, left East Asia. He could have made the journey by himself, or it could be that a more distant ancestor, such as his great-grandmother, left the region long before he was born.

“We have no way to put a clock on that,” said Barta.

Trade Between China and Rome

At first glance it’s tempting to link this fellow to the silk trade that flourished between China and Rome. The trade picked up during the 1st century BC, with traders following an arduous 8,000 kilometre route across Central Asia.

However, while the silk was made in China, it’s generally believed that the people who plodded this route were intermediaries. In fact there is not much evidence that anyone from China, or the areas nearby, ever got to Italy in ancient times.

Dr. Raoul McLaughlin, of Queens University Belfast, has studied ancient Sino-Roman relations and wrote in the publication History Today that-

“The surviving Classical sources suggest that the Romans knew very little about the ancient Chinese. Most of what they knew came in the form of rumours gathered on distant trade ventures.”

Adding, “as far as we are aware, they never realized that on the edge of Asia there was a vast state equivalent in scale and sophistication to their own.”

There are references, however, to a people called the “Seres” whom some scholars believe could be Han Chinese or people from nearby areas. Plinius’s association between the Seres and silk production adds weight to that theory. He wrote: ‘Send out as far as to the Seres for silk stuff to apparel us’.

Strabo also wrote about the Seres, describing their incredible longevity: “The Seres who, they say, are long-lived, and prolong their lives even beyond two hundred years”. According to Florus, embassadors came from this land to meet Augustus.

It seems unlikely that the man found at Vagnari was any kind of embassador – if he was why would he be working on an imperial estate? Did he make a really bad impression on Augustus?

I asked both Prowse and Barta if they knew of any other skeletons with East Asian ancestry near Rome. They both said that they don’t.

“Most of the research that has been done… is really related to early population development, such as humans out of Africa, the migrations of humans from Asia to North and South America,” said Professor Prowse.

“To my knowledge I don’t know of any specific example of this kind of haplogroup.”

Prowse is hopeful that more DNA research will come out as people realize its value.

“It may actually prompt other people to start looking through, and not just rely on the archaeological remains but also trying to look at the skeletal remains to try and answer some of these questions.”

via Ambassador or slave? East Asian skeleton discovered in Vagnari Roman Cemetery | Independent

cf. some of our previous posts:

More coverage:

On the web:

CONF: Cambridge Classical Archaeology Seminar Series

Seen on Classicists (please send any responses to the folks mentioned in the quoted text, not to rogueclassicism!):

D-Caucus Seminars
Lent Term 2010

Tuesdays at 4.30pm Room 1.04 Faculty of Classics (Sidgwick Site), Cambridge.

All Welcome.

Two worlds colliding?: the relationships between Classics and Museums organised by Dr Kate Cooper, Fitzwilliam Museum.

26th January Professor Robin Cormack (Courtauld Institute of Art & Faculty of Classics, Cambridge)
Perspectives from the outside: curating temporary loan exhibitions at the Royal Academy and elsewhere.

2nd February Dr Susan Walker (Keeper of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum)
Change and flow: the new Ashmolean

9th February Dr Lucilla Burn (Keeper of Antiquities, Fitzwilliam Museum)
How do the Greek and Roman collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum and their display relate to the study of Classics?

16th February Dr Andrew Burnett (Deputy Director, The British Museum)
International issues and museums today

23rd February Dr Roger Bland (Head of the Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, The British Museum)
A license to loot or archaeological rescue? The Portable Antiquities Scheme in England and Wales

2nd March Dr Timothy Potts (Director, The Fitzwilliam Museum)
Museums and the preservation of archaeological heritage: past practice and future prospects

In addition. a seminar on Italian Archaeology is planned for 9th March details will be circulated later in the term.

CFP: Prometheus Trust Conference

Seen on Classicists (please send any responses to the folks mentioned in the quoted text, not to rogueclassicism!):


Friday, 25 June to Sunday, 27 June

Ivy House, Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

Crisis and Judgment: Contemplating Action

The word crisis comes to us from the Greek – it meant the act of judging, distinguishing and making decisions: Sophocles wrote a play called Krisis about the judgment of Paris. Today we are all well aware that we are reaching a point where we too are being asked to make far-reaching decisions about our relationships to the universe and to each other. How are we to go about reaching wise decisions?

When Paris made his judgment he was deciding between the Goddesses of Desire, Honour and Wisdom – it was his choice of desire which plunged the Greek states into their ten year war upon the plains of Troy. In the critical choices which are now rising before us we, as individuals and as a global community, have much the same choices as lay before Paris; and according to our inner choices, so will the course of our outer lives, like his, be shaped.

In his 2009 Dimbleby lecture, Facing the Future, the Prince of Wales talked about how we are to tackle the major problems facing humankind and said, “Philosophy is just as important as practical solutions. In fact the right solutions will come more readily if the philosophy is first of all framed by right thinking.” This is, of course, a view which can be seen throughout the writings of Plato: in the Republic, for example, Socrates urges that those who would act as rulers be trained in right thinking, and be brought to that state in which the very highest and most unitive truth is contemplated. Plotinus tells us that contemplation and action are, in reality, phases of a great continuum and that the most effective actions follow from contemplation.

This Conference is called to consider the philosophic response to practical life in this light: to examine the ways in which in this judgment we may choose wisdom.

Papers are invited from those interested in these areas for presentation at the fifth Prometheus Trust conference. We hope that the subject will attract speakers from both academic and non-academic backgrounds who share a common love of wisdom.

Abstracts should be no more than 300 words and should be with us at the latest by Friday, 26 March 2010. Acceptance of these will be confirmed as quickly as possible.

Papers should be around 2500-3000 words or 20 minutes’ presentation (we usually allow 15 minutes for a question and answer session after each presentation).

Bookings should be received by us not later than Friday, 23 April 2010.

The Trustees are greatly honoured that Professor John Dillon has agreed to be our keynote speaker. The following is an introduction to his address:

Towards the Noosphere: Platonist versus Christian Models of the Universe and our Place in it

My theme is, first of all, a confrontation of the Platonic-Plotinian model of a static universe with that of such a thinker as the Christian philosopher Origen, and, from recent times, of the Jesuit thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, both of whom envisage a process of development, commencing with a ‘fall’, and leading back to what Chardin denominated the ‘noosphere’, a state where rationality will be dominant over all irrational forces.

My question is whether, despite many indications to the contrary, we may not after all be shuffling gradually towards such a consummation.


John Dillon is Regius Professor of Greek (Emeritus) in Trinity College Dublin, and founder of the Dublin Centre for the Study of the Platonic Tradition. He was educated at Oxford and University of California at Berkeley, and specialises in the study of Plato and the Platonic Tradition, on which he has written a number of books.


The conference will take place at Ivy House, a retreat centre in Warminster, which is comfortable and well appointed. Residential prices are for the weekend (from Friday supper to Sunday tea): rates for a shorter stay are subject to availability.

Single room £100 Twin room £80 Students: Single £40 Twin room £30

For those who wish to attend the conference but who do not wish to stay or eat at Ivy House, there are inexpensive residential pubs in Warminster and several take-aways/cafes/restaurants. It would be your responsibility to arrange accommodation and food – the only charge payable to the Trust would be the conference fee.

Conference fee: This charge is £20 and is payable with your booking. It is non-refundable in the event of cancellation. Accommodation fees are payable by end of May. Ivy House has its own cancellation policy – details if required from the Conference Secretary.

Booking forms are available from the Conference Secretary at the above address, phone or email. Completed forms with your deposit of £20 should be returned by FRIDAY, 23 APRIL at the very latest.

Travel: Warminster is on the main train line from South Wales and the South Coast and is easily reached from London via Bath or Salisbury. Buses run from Bath, Bristol and Salisbury and coaches from London.

Trustees: Mr T J Addey (Chairman), Mr S Wade, LLB (Secretary), Mrs BAF Addey (Treasurer), Dr Crystal Addey, Mr Jeremy A Best,

Ms M Lyn, and Ms A V Wallace

Patrons: Mr D C Skilling and Mrs M A Skilling

CONF: Manchester, Classics & Ancient History Research Seminars

Seen on Classicists (please send any responses to the folks mentioned in the quoted text, not to rogueclassicism!):

*NB a couple of changes and a couple of additions to the programme published in September*


All Thursday meetings begin at 5 pm in the Samuel Alexander Building, Room S. 2. 8.
CA meetings are on Wednesdays at 5.30 in various rooms of the same building.
All are welcome at all meetings, also at drinks after the discussion and at the meal with the speaker later on.


CA Wed. 3 February 2010, 5.30 pm, A. 113
Tim Parkin (Manchester)
Recovering the wonder: John Turtle Wood (and his wife) in Ephesus, 1863-1874

4 February 2010
Teresa Morgan (Oriel, Oxford)
Roman trust

11 February
Graham Oliver (Liverpool)
The business of state: public finance in Hellenistic Athens

18 February
Peter Liddel (Manchester)
Law, epigraphy and power in the fifth-century Aegean

25 February
Rosalind Thomas (Balliol, Oxford)
Herodotus and the Persians

4 March
Caroline Petit (Manchester)
Galen’s Greek

11 March
Julia Hillner (Sheffield)
Gregory the Great’s prisons

CA Wed. 17 March, 5.30 pm, A. 7
Roslynne Bell (Manchester)
Moving in with the gods: new insights into the Augustan Palatine

18 March
Tom Harrison (Liverpool)
Herodotus on Persian royal ideology

25 March
Ed Bispham (Brasenose, Oxford)
State formation and the Samnite Wars

22 April
Peter Maskell (Manchester)
Carthaginian imperialism

29 April
Rebekka Ott (Manchester)
Latin word-order

6 May
Tobias Reinhardt (Corpus Christi, Oxford)
Galen (title TBC)

CA Wed. 12 May, 5.30 pm, A. 7
Jonathan Powell (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Horace and the Iraq War

13 May
Kate Cooper (Manchester)
Religious identity, conversion, and ethnic identity in late antiquity

20 May
Roberta Mazza (Manchester)
Money for doctors, faith for Jesus: disease and healing in the Gospel
of Mark in the light of Greek papyri

David Langslow, convener of the research seminar, and Chair of the Manchester Branch of the Classical Association
David.Langslow for further information