This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
In 1901, a stone coffin was discovered during groundworks in Sycamore Terrace, York (UK). It contained the remains of a young adult woman furnished with a fantastic range and quality of grave goods.
The woman was richly adorned – she wore pale, orange-coloured glass earrings and bore a silver pendant around her neck. A blue-glass flagon was present, along with a small glass mirror and a carved bone inscription. On each wrist she wore one bangle of ivory matched with one of Whitby jet.
Such was the rarity of ivory in Roman Britain, that this has led to the woman being given the nickname of the “Ivory Bangle Lady”.
Research into the “Ivory Bangle Lady”
The importance of this grave to our understanding of Roman York – and even to Roman Britain more generally – was advanced in 2009 with the publication of a scientific research paper from a team at the University of Reading and osteologist Steph Leach.
The research aimed to do two things: firstly to assess the skeletal remains of several dozen Roman graves from York to try and identify ancestry traits and, secondly, to analyse several stable-isotopes from teeth.
Isotopic analysis, when used for human remains, is a remarkable piece of science. It identifies the presence of certain stable chemical isotopes preserved in teeth. An isotope is a form of a chemical where the atom has a different number of neutrons, for example Carbon 12 and Carbon 14 are both isotopes of the chemical carbon.
Someone 2,000 years ago who ate locally grown foods and drank locally sourced groundwater developed, over time, a unique isotopic signature of that area in their tooth enamel. As the bone and enamel is not subject to remodelling, carbon, oxygen, and strontium isotopes (amongst others) are captured in them and can still be identified through modern techniques.
Before the existence of globalised food chains, these signatures can be mapped to certain areas. So, we know that the Ivory Bangle Lady has an isotopic signature that is characteristic of an upbringing away from York.
Taking the results of the isotopic analyses alongside a critical interpretation of her skeletal remains and grave goods lets us build a biography of this ancient citizen of Roman York. She was of African descent, a young adult when she died (aged approximately 18 to 23 years old), had grown up somewhere warm and migrated to Britain, where she had lived for several years before her death.
At the time of her death, she was very wealthy, as shown by the nature of her burial and the types of objects she was buried with.
York in the early fourth century
Before I talk more about the items in her grave, let’s take a moment to contextualise her within early-fourth-century York. York, or Eboracum, as it was known in Roman times, was founded in AD 70/71 by the Ninth Roman Legion. They built and garrisoned the first wooden fortress which could hold over 5,000 legionaries.
From its earliest days, a settlement started to be built around the military fortress. By the fourth century a lot had changed – for one York was then a huge settlement, with the non-military part outweighing the still-substantial fortress. The Sixth Legion took over the garrison in the early second century and rebuilt the fortress in stone.
With the exception of a few trips north to build monumental walls and to campaign in Scotland, this legion remained attached to York until the end of the Roman period. York was given the status of Colonia, literally a “colony”. This was a legal title that linked to the presence of retired legionaries in the city but also highlighted its municipal importance.
In the early third century, Britain had been split into two provinces: Britannia Superior and Britannia Inferior. York was the capital of the new northern province, Inferior. In AD 296, Britain was further divided into four provinces and York remained as the capital of one of these, Britannia Secunda. The Emperor Septimius Severus died in the city in AD 211 and the Emperor Constantine I was proclaimed emperor here by his father Constantius Chlorus in AD 308.
What this abridged history highlights is the administrative, military, and strategic importance of York in the north of Roman Britain. It was a city connected to both the centre of the Empire and to its very edges.
No surprise then, that a wealthy young woman should reside here in the fourth century.
The objects a person is buried with are often a window into their lifestyle and identity in the ancient world. At least, they can convey the sort of lifestyle that their family wanted to project, especially if it was a public funeral where these objects may have been visible to mourners.
The multiple necklaces and unusual blue-glass flagon and glass mirror are signals of access to money. The Ivory Bangle Lady wore a silver bulla necklace as well. Bulla is Latin for “bubble” and this relates to its shape – a sort of spherical capsule with a wide central ridge. The shape was meant to hold something, usually something used as an amulet. It might have been a plant, an inscribed papyrus fragment, a tooth, or a small figurine. There is a tradition of these objects being worn by adult women in graves in the later parts of the Romano-British period.
The jet and ivory bangles are, however, crucially important objects in this grave. One prevailing theory regarding the ancestry and early life of the Ivory Bangle Lady is that she grew up in north Africa or was, through one of her parents, linked to this area.
The ivory bangles she wore in death are made from African elephant ivory. She migrated to York, in the north of Roman Britain from somewhere coastal around the Mediterranean basin. The jet bangles she wore are locally sourced Whitby-jet. The combination of both on each wrist is a microcosm of her own biography. Her own migration story was being presented through the objects in her grave.
The plaque in her grave is an openwork, bone inscription reading SOROR AVE VIVAS IN DEO, i.e. “Hail sister, may you live in God”. It is one of the few Christian artefacts from Roman York and highlights the presence of an early Christian community in late Roman York.
What is unclear is whether this means that the women in the grave was a practising Christian or whether she was a pagan or agnostic who had links to the Christian community, or even if this is evidence of a fluid relationship between them.
When this research was released to the news in 2009 there was a backlash, particularly online, from people with alt-right perspectives who were upset at the idea of a young, wealthy woman of mixed-race ancestry living in Roman York. This challenged a stereotype – which was, at this point, already outdated – that linked black people to enslavement in the ancient world and not to positions of wealth and power.
This isn’t the only time that racists have attacked historians who rightly argue for the presence of black people amongst the Romano-British. An excellent article in the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal by Emily Hanscam, “Postnationalism and the past”, addresses this topic directly and is a much-recommended read.
A reticence amongst certain people to accept the scientific and archaeological evidence has affected the interpretation of the Ivory Bangle Lady for over a decade now. Thankfully she is now a doyenne of modernising approaches to Roman Britain.
David Olusoga’s 2017 book Black and British featured the Ivory Bangle Lady and she was even mentioned in the 2020 UK House of Commons debate on the need to teach Black history as part of the English national curriculum. In the speech by Teresa Villiers, the Ivory Bangle Lady was compared with the importance of “a young Black girl (…) found in North Elmham near Norwich [and] dating back to the Saxon era”, as well as the presence of a black community in the court records of King James IV of Scotland, and the famous John Blanke, a black musician who performed for Henry VIII.
The narrative of the Ivory Bangle Lady is, perhaps, best advocated by the Yorkshire Museum. Her remains and grave goods are on public display in the museum. Despite facing the online hatred of the (alt-)right when her story is highlighted, the museum continues to present the reality of this woman’s ancestry and position of power to visitors.
A recent blog, again highlighting the importance of this woman’s grave in our understanding of Roman Britain, reveals that she will be part of a programme of ancient DNA (“aDNA”, which sequences degraded DNA from specific bone tissues) research into the inhabitants of Roman York. Ancient DNA analysis will only reveal more about the fascinating narrative of the Ivory Bangle Lady.
Her life may have been cut short, but her legacy in helping us to understand the place where she lived is vast indeed.