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The bones of heritage

  • Published at 12:01 am November 5th, 2016
The bones of heritage

Skeletons recovered recently from a historic burial site in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames in London, to the expressed “surprise” of archaeologists, remind us once again of some of the great truths of history and heritage, and very early globalisation.

We have long known that “migrants” from the lands that are now those of Bangladesh will, undoubtedly, have comprised a large proportion of the arrivals in Europe, following the late 15th century arrival of the European Portuguese.

That the origins of many such migrants can be found in the Himalayan territories and beyond is without doubt.

The rapid advance over the ensuing century or so, of British presence in the area, no doubt increased, considerably, the flow of such migrants into Britain. Every ship arriving in the important lands around the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna will have required to either recruit, or even acquire, local replacements for the crew numbers lost to sickness, on board accidents, or even desertion during the outward voyage or on arrival in the lands from which, already, small fortunes were being made.

The very fact that a charity was set up towards the end of the 18th century, for indigent former mariners stranded in Britain, or that earlier, an Act of Parliament called for at least 75% of the crew of naval or trading vessels to comprise British mariners, speak volumes for the proliferation of early, even involuntary, migration.

These two skeletons, however, recovered from a Roman burial ground, dating from second to fourth century AD, are judged by specialists to have originated from China.

We know that the two of the greatest Empires of that period, Roman and Chinese, were both aware of each other, and had been trading with each other already for centuries.

We have no idea whether these two people were merchants, travellers, adventurers, or even, quite possibly, slaves; but what we are entitled to consider is the route by which they reached Roman London, ending their days in what was to become, over centuries, the slums of the south bank. Perhaps crews recruited in the lands that are now Bangladesh arrived, eventually, in England, even so early in time?

The heritage world of the western nations continue their love affair with the famous Silk Road -- in fact, a name created in the second half of the 19th century by Baron von Richthofen to describe the trading routes that spanned the entire breadth of Asia.

It was, overland, a journey breathlessly described by one commentator as a 5,000-mile journey between two great Empires: “Of imposing mountain ranges, barren deserts, and exposed steppe grasslands.”

Not to mention ice coverings, hostile and barbaric chieftainships, and grasping empires.

Somehow, the ancient, historic view that “water was the highway of the ancient world,” seems to have escaped the attention of such commentators.

Did early traders, in fact, make such a difficult and tortuous expedition, or was the preferred route one of water?

Examination of the map of Asia and its rivers readily reveals the facility with which the journey could, indeed, have been made, at first, by water, even before the “Sea Silk Road” was opened.

A journey by water, across China, by either the Yellow or Yangtze rivers, reaches a few hundred kilometres from the waters of the Lohit River, which, passing through the shallowest pass the Himalayan range could offer, flows down to join the waters of the Dihang River, itself originating as the Tsangpo River in Tibet, fresh from its own, tumbling passage through the towering mountains, where the joint waters become known as the Brahmaputra, offering a simple passage to the Indian ocean.

In the late 18th or early 19th century, of course, most of the waters of the Brahmaputra, itself, merged, in the lands of today’s Bangladesh, with the Jamuna River.

The heritage world of the Western nations continue their love affair with the famous Silk Road -- in fact, a name created in the second half of the 19th century by Baron von Richthofen to describe the trading routes that spanned the entire breadth of Asia

If the route for early Chinese travellers is clear on the map, there is also documentary, archaeological, and empirical evidence to suggest it was, at the very least, and quite probably exclusively, the preferred route to market for Chinese merchandise, especially silk.

However, one of the “experts,” involved in the excavation and the identification of the bones, recovered alongside four identified as of African origin, and also apparently something of a surprise to them, five of Mediterranean origin, has expressed “surprise” at the discovery.

In an age when the interest of early traders, and the Roman Empire in the British Isles -- interest especially manifested in the mid 1st century AD remarkably accurate map of the outline of the British Isles drawn by the famous Ptolemy (who also mapped, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, the Ganges delta) -- why should anyone be surprised?

Especially at the discovery of bones of Mediterranean or even African origin; after all, Roman mercenary soldiers derived from all across the extensive Roman Empire, and beyond.

And, so too, just as it would one-and-a-half millennia later, were crews probably recruited to, as the 1st  century AD, Roman geographer, Strabo, wrote: “Those who sailed from Egypt, even to the Ganges ... ”

In the age of developing international trade, and long after the beginnings of inter-continental travel, merchants, and their employees, and slaves, travelled, and, not infrequently, settled.

As early as 1,600BCE, Britain itself had already developed a flourishing business in the export of tin across Europe; and copper, and some gold and silver were, no doubt, amongst the attractions that brought the Romans to “conquer” England, following the first adventure of Julius Caesar in 55BCE.

As the Roman Empire grew and flourished, by the second/fourth century period from which the human remains in Southwark date, it commanded most of the known world of Europe and much of the Middle East. And certainly traded from well beyond its own imperial territories.

Trade from China to the known world, we have it on the authority of the Chinese themselves, certainly flourished from, probably the middle of the last millennium BCE, and, very probably, much earlier.

But the Chinese themselves also appear reasonably certain that their trade with the lands of the Ganges considerably predated any possibility of struggling across deserts and ice fields, endless grasslands and through the rugged mountain ranges, but rather, along what they refer to as “The Southern Silk Road,” south through the Himalayas on the Lohit River, down the Brahmaputra to the Bay of Bengal.

From, certainly, at latest, the fourth century BCE time of the Greek writer, Megasthenes, the Kingdom of Gangaridai flourished around the delta of the Brahmaputra and Ganges.

This was a kingdom evidently very familiar to Romans before the Common Era.

Apollonius of Rhodes, re-writing in the third century BCE the Homeric legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece, included in his cast of characters: “Dais, a chief of the Gangaridai.”

Virgil, the great Roman poet and historian, writing in the closing years before the Common Era, wrote of the “Gangaridae,” being a part of a victory of the Roman general, Quirinius, in Asia Minor, at least 300 years before these Chinese were interred in London.

And, since in the period of documented history we can, for over a thousand years and indeed, perhaps considering even the evidently knowledgeable writings of Greek and Roman writers as much as two thousand years, be reasonably certain of globalisation of such as soldiers, sailors, and traders, we should probably not be surprised that innovations in archaeology now provide us with scientific evidence of that global flow of people.

When such archaeology is now, increasingly, confirming the “Out of Africa” flow of mankind, we may well expect increasing confirmation of what, hitherto, may have appeared improbable at best, or even inconceivable.

Climatic conditions in Bangladesh, it seems, deny us the evidence of ancient bones to enable us to understand the human characteristics of waves of migrants into our lands around the ancient centre of international trade around the Ganges and Brahmaputra.

Having to rely on fossil human remains of up to 100,000 years old in the lands of the Himalayas and artefacts associated with them is not quite the same. But, knowing what we can be fairly certain of in terms of such ebbs and flows of humanity through the lands of today’s Bangladesh, that across the world, evidence of such flows continues to emerge, should probably delight us in the confirmation of what we should have supposed as possible, probable, or even beyond doubt, rather than surprise us.

Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.