Celebrating Ivory Bangle Lady
This month we are celebrating the life of an important woman with North African ancestry who lived and died in York more than 1,600 years ago.
The way she was buried, the special objects interred with her, and the insights into her origins that scientific research has recently revealed help to tell her story. Whilst we know many things about her, her name is not one of them, so she is affectionately known as the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’.
Wealthy, fashionable and cosmopolitan
The grave of this young woman, aged between 18 and 23 years when she died, was discovered in 1901 at Sycamore Terrace in York, just a few hundred meters from the Yorkshire Museum where she now lies. This area was once part of a sprawling cemetery on the fringes of Eboracum, Roman York.
She lay within a stone coffin, adorned with beautiful jewellery and accompanied by a range of objects. Most of Eboracum’s residents were modestly buried, without elaborate coffins or grave goods. In stark contrast, Ivory Bangle Lady’s burial stands out as a burial of a wealthy woman of high social status.
The style of the objects buried with her reveal that she died in the later fourth century AD, within the last decades of Roman occupation in Britain. A closer look at these allows us to appreciate the international trade networks within which Eboracum sat and the cosmopolitan nature of its inhabitants. Beautifully crafted fashionable goods, some made with exotic materials from distant provinces of the Roman Empire, were available to purchase at Eboracum’s markets, by those who could afford them... and Ivory Bangle Lady certainly could.
Her wrists were decorated with dramatically contrasting bangles of black jet and white ivory, from which her nickname derives. Whilst jet is a local product, sourced from Whitby less than 50 miles away on the Yorkshire coast, ivory was a much more exotic and rare import from Africa.
She also wore an elaborate necklace of blue glass beads and a pair of yellow glass earrings. A small blue glass bottle, possibly once filled with perfumed oil, is another import, this time from the Rhineland, and a convex glass disc may have been used as a mirror.
Although fragmentary, a small bone plaque that once decorated a box or casket is perhaps the most significant item from her burial. It was carefully carved to create words reading SOROR AVE VIVAS IN DEO which can be translated as “Hail sister! May you live in God”. This hints at Ivory Bangle Lady’s association with a relatively new and exotic religion, Christianity.
Of mixed ancestry
For over a century Ivory Bangle Lady was interpreted as an important Christian woman of Roman York, but little consideration was given to her origins. Recent scientific study of her skeletal remains by a team of archaeologists from the University of Reading has shed light on the previously untold chapters of her story and shown her ancestry to be as international as the objects in her grave.
By taking detailed and precise measurements of her skull, osteoarchaeologists were able to tell that Ivory Bangle Lady had mixed racial heritage and ancestral links to North Africa.
Archaeological scientists also revealed secrets about her early life by analysing chemical elements within her teeth. Our teeth are time capsules of our past; as they grow they incorporate chemicals from the food and drink we consume into their structure. These chemicals vary depending on the climate and geology of the local area and so show in what kind of place someone grew up.
Ivory Bangle Lady’s results are fascinating. They show that she didn’t grow up in York but migrated here later in her life. They also suggest that she spent her childhood somewhere with a warmer climate, on the coast. Whilst this may have been in southern England, given her heritage it was more likely somewhere on the Mediterranean coast, perhaps even North Africa itself.
Eboracum, a diverse city
These new insights transform our understanding of the life of Ivory Bangle Lady and highlight how diverse the people of Roman Yorkshire were. Like most urban areas of the Roman Empire, Eboracum was a cultural melting pot which welcomed visitors from provinces as far as Africa and the Near East. Ivory Bangle Lady was one of many migrants with African heritage who made the city their home.
The most famous of these was Emperor Septimius Severus who lived here from 208 until his death in 211 AD. Born in Leptis Magna, modern Libya, he arrived in Britain with thousands of troops, many of them African. Items in the Yorkshire Museum’s collections show an embracing of the fashions and beliefs these migrants brought with them, with new North African with crafts and religions established in the city around the time of the emperor’s stay.
The racial diversity of Roman York can be through the physical evidence of its people too. Skeletal remains from Roman burials in the museum’s collections were analysed using the same techniques outlined above, and the results showed that more than 10% of the individuals were of likely African descent.
The Ivory Bangle Lady’s story provides a personal insight into a real person from our past. The combined study of her burial, grave goods and ancestry bring the character of this woman to life. She had an eye for fashion and the means to buy exotic and rare goods. With mixed racial heritage and family from North Africa she travelled to Eboracum, a diverse city of the fringes of the empire, where she spent the rest of her short life. We can only wonder why she travelled here. Maybe she was the wife or relative of soldier who was stationed here, or perhaps she came to take advantage of the many opportunities that Britannia’s thriving second city had to offer.
Whilst we don’t know how she died, I find it incredible and humbling that we can know so much about the life of someone who lived in York more than 1,600 years ago.
Find out more about the recent research on Ivory Bangle Lady here: https://www.reading.ac.uk/archaeology/research/Projects/arch-HE-Diaspora.aspx