“There were Africans in Britain before the English came here”, reveals the opening line of Peter Fryer’s acclaimed book Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. The Ivory Bangle Lady, an enigmatic figure from the fourth century interred in York, has become a focal point for the study of Roman Britain. Her mysterious origins, cultural diversity, and the controversies surrounding her discovery illuminate the intricate web of migration, identity, and colonial history within the Roman Empire.
This brief piece embarks on a captivating journey into the life and significance of the Ivory Bangle Lady, delving into her unique attributes, the multifaceted dynamics of Roman Britain, and the invaluable insights garnered from her remains.
The discovery of Ivory Bangle Lady was not universally welcomed
The revelation that a woman, potentially of high status, was possibly of North African descent, was a groundbreaking discovery. However, this revelation did not go unnoticed. On several occasions her ancestry became the target of racist commentary from far-right factions online and elsewhere. This appalling response highlights the societal challenges in grappling with the complexity of migration and identity.
Multicultural Roman Britain
The Ivory Bangle Lady’s story offers a unique lens through which we can examine the multicultural landscape of Roman Britain. The Roman Empire, extending from its heart in Rome across Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, was a tapestry of diverse cultures and backgrounds. Her North African heritage challenges preconceptions and emphasises the rich diversity within the empire.
Migration to Britain during the first century was a fundamental component of the Roman Empire’s expansion and colonial pursuits. Julius Caesar’s initial invasion in 55/54 BC and Emperor Claudius’ conquest in 43 AD marked pivotal moments in this expansion. The motives behind the empire’s growth have been widely debated, with economic gain, military security, and political competition all playing roles.
The Roman Empire’s need for a significant population to govern its vast territory led to the influx of individuals from various regions who willingly accepted Roman rule. Inscriptions on stone monuments commemorate these diverse backgrounds, including Gaul, North Africa, Spain, and even regions beyond the empire’s frontiers. The Roman conquest of Britain prompted the migration of soldiers, administrators, merchants, women, and children.
Estimating the exact number of migrants during this period remains a challenge due to the scarcity of records. However, the analysis of skeletons, through the study of skull morphology, isotopic signatures, and DNA profiles, has revealed a picture of diverse populations that included both locals and newcomers. This diversity was particularly prominent in major urban and military centres.
The motivations behind migration to Britain varied, ranging from voluntary moves to capitalise on opportunities in the new province to forced migrations, such as slavery. Evidence suggests that while there were revolts against Roman rule, there were also signs of integration. The presence of individuals from diverse backgrounds in positions of influence highlights the profound impact of cultural exchange and assimilation.
Interpreting her origins
The Ivory Bangle Lady’s origins remain a subject of ongoing debate. Her skull shape suggests North African ancestry, although she likely grew up in the southwest of Britain or on the continent (a warm coastal location). This intriguing discrepancy raises questions about the interplay of genetics, upbringing, and cultural identity. It is thought she may have been of mixed race and that one of her parents would have been from North Africa, influencing her cultural affiliations while growing up in a different part of the Roman Empire.
The body was buried in a stone sarcophagus with extraordinarily rich grave goods. These included bracelets made from local jet and more exotic ones made of ivory. A short inscription on a bone mount, that once probably decorated a box, indicates a link to Christianity as it says “Hail, sister, may you live in God”.
Detailed examinations of the burial have been carried out by the archaeology department at the University of Reading. Writing for the Our Migration Story website, historian Dr Hella Eckardt explained the discrepancies:
“Other skeletons from York and other Romano-British towns show that some incomers (as identified by their isotopic signatures) look almost like locals in terms of their burial rites and grave goods, while some archaeologically very exotic burials are in fact those of people born locally. Why could this be? We need to consider the fact that the dead do not bury themselves. Grave goods and burial rites might be shaped by parents or partners who had a different geographical origin to the deceased.”
The Ivory Bangle Lady stands as a symbol of the complex tapestry of Roman Britain. Her unique burial and ancestry challenge preconceptions about the composition of Roman society and the extent of multiculturalism within the empire. In studying her remains, historians and archaeologists continue to uncover valuable insights into migration, integration, and the blending of cultures in the Roman Empire. The Ivory Bangle Lady’s story serves as a testament to the rich, diverse history of this era, reminding us of the enduring legacy of a multicultural empire.
The skeleton and the grave goods are displayed in Roman York: Meet the People of the Empire at the Yorkshire Museum.