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Ivory Bangle Lady: The face of an African in York’s High Society (4th Century)

There have been many misconceptions when it comes to the status of Africans who lived at much earlier times like the 13th to 18th century and even earlier in the 1st to 6th centuries, particularly Africans that happen to live overseas in what is today Europe and the USA. There is a wrong assumption that all Africans who lived during those times were either slaves or second- class citizens; assumptions that are gradually but surely being set right.

Yet another proof of this is the discovery of the burial site of an African woman popularly known as the Ivory Bangle Lady in the ancient city of York, Northern England. She was found buried in a stone sarcophagus. Her burial site was accidentally unearthed in 1901 by workers going about the task of expanding a street near Sycamore Terrace York which lies mid-way between Bootham and the River Ouse[1].

A MAP SHOWING LOCATION OF BURIAL SITE IN YORK(http://www.academia.edu/230134/A_Lady_of_York_migration_ethnicity)

The burial site undoubtedly suggests she was an elite very wealthy woman that lived an extremely luxurious lifestyle. This is substantiated by the detailed studies and examination that have been carried out by archaeologists, looking into her burial style and the scores of expensive and exotic grave goods that were found along with her remains at the site. Some of the items found were different bracelets, some made from local jet (possibly from Whitby, Yorkshire) and some very exotic ones made from elephant ivory, earrings, pendants, beads, glass mirror, a blue glass perfume jar amongst other items. Many of these items have exotic and diverse provenances and can only be owned by a few very wealthy individuals at the time.

SOME GRAVE GOODS FOUND AT BURIAL SITE (source)

One of the famous objects from her burial site is a rectangular bone mount, with an inscription that read “S[OR]OR AVE VIVAS IN DEO” which translates to “Hail sister, may you live in God[2].” This strongly suggests that she might have been Christian or might have had Christian beliefs.

Another pointer to her social status and affluence is when you consider that the ancient city of York where she was buried as of the time of her death was a highly developed and up-class city, therefore, for her to have lived a life of luxury, died and been accorded a glamorous burial in such an upscale community is an indication she was no second class citizen but rather among the crème de la crème of the society. To understand how elite having an inscription is only 2,500 remains from the entire period of Roman occupation of Britain had inscriptions. To help you grasp a better understanding of the city’s influence and status during those times here are a few facts: York city is famous for its heritage, it is home to an ancient Viking heritage which is celebrated annually. York city boasts of constructing one of the first and earliest paved streets in Britain. It was in York city that Constantine the Great was named the new Emperor and from where he governed the Roman Empire for a short while, so it is no wonder the city attracts millions of tourists yearly.

RESEARCH AND STUDY

The Ivory Bangle Lady is predicted to have died and buried sometime in the second half of the 4th century. She was quickly named the Ivory bangle Lady because of the ivory bangles among which she was buried. It may never be known what enticed the ivory bangle lady to the strange province of Britannia; perhaps she had relations in the army. However, it was obvious she was familiar with the way of life of the Roman empire, and she thrived in this environment, living in great luxury to the extent that when she died, she was paid a great homage.

AN ARCHAEOLOGIST STUDYING THE SKELETAL REMAINS (source)

There is no indication of her name, how she managed to acquire such wealth or how she came to be of such high social status. However, a detailed study and extensive forensic research conducted by the Archeological department of the University of Reading, which included the analyses of her teeth, skull, and reconstruction of her facial features revealed she was African, of North African ancestry with a height of about 5.1feet and was young between the ages of 18 to 23 years[3]. In the exact words of the University’s Archaeology Department senior lecturer Dr Hella Eckhardt “by analysing the facial features of the Ivory Bangle Lady and measuring her skull, analysing the chemical signature of the food and drink she consumed, and analyzing evidence from the burial site we are now able to establish a clear profile of her ancestry and social status.” Her skeleton was gracile, it showed no sign of any strenuous lifestyle or hard physical activity, no sign of any childhood trauma and no apparent cause of death[4]

Recent technological advancements made it possible to successfully analyze the chemical signatures preserved in the human teeth to determine diet and origin. This is possible by studying the ratios of stable isotopes like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and strontium. People from hot, coastal like Africa will have a different signature compared to people from cooler locations like Europe. This might be tricky in determining a more exacting area of origin as many areas have similar isotope signatures. However, it is well suited for use in determining if a person is indigenous of the location they were found. Analyses of the mineral of her teeth showed she had travelled the full breadth of the Roman world and indicated she was a high-income earner.

SKELETAL REMAINS OF THE IVORY BANGLE LADY(GOOGLE)

Further study of the Ivory Bangle lady has suggested she might have been born and raised in the south of Britain or the continent. Some Archaeologists suggests she might have been of North African descent and was born and raised in Europe or Britain. This theory is supported going by an examination and study by archaeologists, of a few hundred other skeletons and graves from York and other similar Roman-British areas. This showed that the burial rites and grave goods of foreigners (distinguished from locals by the composition of their isotopic signatures) bear a striking similarity to that of the locals while very exotic burials like that of the Ivory Bangle Lady are like some of those from a wealthy background born locally. Same cannot be said on why or how she came to live in the city, no one really knows; there are some theories though. Some scholars believe that because Africa had a great effect on the classical world in sculpture, clothing, architecture and was actively involved in trade, she might have been the daughter of rich African merchants that settled in Britain. For instance, most of the grain supply to Rome came from Egypt and parts of Libya.

THE ANCIENT CITY OF ROMAN YORK

In the 4th century, Britain had already been incorporated as part of the Roman Empire that spanned across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. This inevitably led to a mass movement of people. The city of York known at the time was known as Eboracum. It was founded around AD71 was a provincial capital of the Roman Empire[5] and was the largest city in North Britain. It was both a legionary fortress and a settlement for civilians. The civilian populace included wives and families of military personnel that continued living in the region they had served even after discharge. This status of the city as a Provincial capital coupled with the periodical and random visits by many world leaders and the impact of the military made Roman York a top choice destination for immigrants. This perhaps might offer clues to how and why The Ivory Bangle Lady came to dwell in the city. The Roman Empire is often seen as a homogeneous entity, full of people who looked, talked and acted similarly. The discovery of the Ivory bangled lady challenges this assumption and sheds new light on what might have been the status of Africans during those periods. There are other notable Africans that might have come to Britain like Emperor Septimius Severus that reigned from AD193 to AD2111 who was born in what is now present-day Libya.

The remains of The Ivory Bangle Lady is presently kept at the Yorkshire Museum. Although not much is known or documented about her life, her discovery significantly negates the notion that Africans in western societies were either slaves or of a struggling class that were introduced to the society through slavery or that Africans before the slave trade were uncivilized and lived in forests. A study of various artifacts and remains from the 4th century in the Yorkshire museum proves Africans lived and thrived in the region thousands of years ago[6]. In a recent research piece published in the March edition of The Journal Antiquity, it showed that Africans were among the highest social circles in the Roman york of those periods[7]. And in the words of Dr. Eckhardt, “We’re looking at a population mix which is much closer to contemporary Britain than previous historians had suspected.” She goes on further to say “Her case contradicts assumptions that may derive from more recent historical experience, namely that immigrants are low status and male, and that African individuals are likely to have been slaves.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • BOYNTON, T. 1902. Archaeology: report of the Councilof the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, February 10th 1902.Yorkshire Philosophical Society Annual Reports 1894-1903 Volume 9.
  • RIB II.3. 1991. The Roman inscriptions of Britain.Volume II, Fascicule 3 (R.G. Collingwood & R.P. Wright, edited by S.S. Frere & R.S.O. Tomlin).Stroud: Alan Sutton.
  • ROBERTS, C.A. & M. COX . 2003.Health and disease in Britain from prehistory to the present day . Stroud:Sutton.
  • HAWKEY , D.E. & C.F. MERBS. 1995. Activity-inducedmusculoskeletal stress markers and subsistencestrategy changes among ancient Hudson Bay Eskimos. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.
  • OTTAWAY , P. 2004. Roman York . Stroud: Tempus. PROWSE, T., H.P. SCHWARCZ, P. GARNSEY, M. KNYF, R. MACCIARELLI & L. BONDIOLI. 2007. Isotopicevidence for age-related immigration to ImperialRome. American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
  • https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/feb/26/roman-york-skeleton
  • https://www.ourmigrationstory.org.uk/oms/roman-britain-the-ivory-bangle-lady
  • https://www.yorkshiremuseum.org.uk/collections/collections-highlights/ivory-bangle-lady/
  • https://face2faceafrica.com/article/ivory-bangle-lady-the-mysterious-and-rich-4th-century-african-woman-whose-grave-was-discovered-in-britain-in-1901
  • https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1254187/Revealed-The-African-queen-called-York-home-4th-century.html

CITATIONS

  1. Boyton, 1902

  2. RIB II.3. 1991.

  3. Roberts & Cox 2003: 142

  4. Hawkey & Merbs 1995

  5. Ottaway,2004

  6. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1254187/Revealed-The-African-queen-called-York-home-4th-century.html

  7. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1254187/Revealed-The-African-queen-called-York-home-4th-century.html

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