A Distant Diaspora: Thinking Comparatively about Origins, Migrations and Roman Slavery
It is estimated that more than 100 million people were enslaved in the millennium during which the Roman Empire rose and fell, yet the archaeology of Classical slavery is still in its infancy, with many Roman archaeologists still believing that slaves remain ‘invisible’ to archaeological view. In the last few years however, a small group of scholars have begun to explore the potentials of a comparative archaeology of Classical slavery: one drawing explicitly on the work carried out by archaeologists of early modern slavery in North America and the Caribbean. Much of this work has of course been written by and for Romanists. There is as yet little sign of a dialogue opening up between archaeologists of ancient and modern slavery, and we seem to remain largely ignorant of developments in each other’s ‘worlds.’
The aim of this article is to make a small step towards an improved dialogue, by highlighting points of similarity and difference concerning the nature – and study – of forced migrations in the Classical and Atlantic worlds. I begin by exploring shared central research questions: where did an individual’s journey into slavery begin? Can we recognise dominant routes, overall volumes, and demographic trends in the long history of slave importation? In addressing issues of identity and ethnicity, how do we navigate between ethnic self-identification and imposed (Eurocentric) ethnic labels? Can we see new identities forming among the enslaved, and how is ethnogenesis given material expression? As will quickly become clear, Roman archaeologists face severe problems when attempting to address any of these questions, simply because the data at our disposal are very limited. For that very reason, it is important that we pay close attention to the work of archaeologists of slavery in the Americas, and open our eyes to the methodologies employed there. With this in mind, the article ends with a brief case study in which Fennell’s work on ethnogenic bricolage in the Atlantic world is employed in analysing Roman slave graffiti.
The African Diaspora Archaeology Network (2010)