New forensic techniques in archaeology reveal existence of high status Africans living in 4th Century AD York
“A picture of multi-cultural Britain in 4th Century AD has been revealed using the latest forensic techniques in archaeology. The new research, published in the March issue of the journal Antiquity, demonstrates that Roman York of the period had individuals of North African descent moving in the highest social circles.
Dr Hella Eckardt, Senior Lecturer at the University of Reading, said: “Multi-cultural Britain is not just a phenomenon of more modern times. Analysis of the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ and others like her, contradicts common popular assumptions about the make up of Roman-British populations as well as the view that African immigrants in Roman Britain were of low status, male and likely to have been slaves.”
“To date, we have had to rely on evidence of such foreigners in Roman Britain from inscriptions. However, by analysing the facial features of the Ivory Bangle Lady and measuring her skull compared to reference populations, analysing the chemical signature of the food and drink she consumed, as well as evaluating the evidence from the burial site, we are now able to establish a clear profile of her ancestry and social status.
“It helps paint a picture of a Roman York that was hugely diverse and which included among its population, men, women and children of high status from Romanised North Africa and elsewhere in the Mediterranean.”
The ancestry assessment suggests a mixture of ‘black’ and ‘white’ ancestral traits, and the isotope signature indicates that she may have come from somewhere slightly warmer than the UK. Taken together with the evidence of an unusual burial rite and grave goods, the evidence all points to a high status incomer to Roman York. It seems likely that she is of North African descent, and may have migrated to York from somewhere warmer, possibly the Mediterranean.
The Ivory Bangle Lady was a high status young woman who was buried in Roman York (Sycamore Terrace). Dated to the second half of the fourth century, her grave contains jet and elephant ivory bracelets, earrings, pendants, beads, a blue glass jug and a glass mirror. The most famous object from this burial is a rectangular openwork mount of bone, possibly from an unrecorded wooden casket, which reads ‘Hail, sister, may you live in God’, indicating Christian beliefs.”