Ivory Bangle Lady: looking back, and to the future
For Black History Month in 2020, we shared a blog about a young Roman woman who was buried in York in the late fourth century. She is affectionately known as ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’, named after the rare ivory bangles found around her wrists. The blog was written as a part of last year’s Black History Month highlighting evidence from her bones and teeth that she travelled from Roman North Africa and analysis of her skull that suggests she was of mixed ethnic ancestry. Isotopic testing of her teeth suggested that she grew up in a warm, coastal climate. The archaeological analysis that led to this conclusion also tested many other skeletons and this research suggests that a sizable minority of Roman York’s population, perhaps around 10%, had connections to areas beyond Europe. This should not necessarily surprise us as there is a range of other archaeological evidence which suggests movement within and beyond the Roman Empire.
The blog provoked a response on social media, with parts of the internet rejecting both the evidence underpinning interpretation of Ivory Bangle Lady, as well as the wider point regarding the diverse nature of Roman York. Elements of this response were from extreme right-wing parts of the internet, with some using overtly racist language. Disappointingly, this was not the first time that interpretation of Ivory Bangle Lady has provoked vitriolic responses with a number of replies to a 2010 story about the subject prompting similar reactions. What is perhaps note-worthy with regards to last year’s blog is that only a minority actually read it. For many, simply the image of a young black woman associated with Roman Britain was enough to prompt their replies.
The blog also generated lots of supportive comments, both locally and from around the world. We issued a robust response via our social media at the time, with an aim to try to share links and information to point people in the direction of research and further information which would help them to understand more. We are fortunate that the subject is relatively well described with scholarly articles, newspaper columns as well as sections within major history books all tackling the subject. Recently, Ivory Bangle Lady has even had a London underground station named in her honour.
Work on analysis of Ivory Bangle Lady and others from Roman York was conducted over a decade ago, using techniques which were pioneering at the time. In the decade since then new techniques have been developed, with major advances in the mapping of ancient DNA in particular. These techniques can be utilised to characterise the genetics of individuals, comparing these to others from the same period as well as modern populations. The technique is a relatively new one, but it has shown promise in analysing populations in other parts of Europe.
It is for this reason that we are excited that we are working with Skoglund Ancient Genomics Lab, based at the Francis Crick Institute. They have a project to analyse 1000 skeletons from across Britain. They will be analysing the skeleton of Ivory Bangle Lady alongside that of a number of other Roman skeletons within our collection. Combined with the information we already have about their bones and teeth, this has the potential to offer new insights into both their ancestry and movement. While it will be some time before we know the results of this work, we are excited to be part of a project using the latest scientific techniques to help us reveal more about the people who lived in York 2,000 years ago.
If you want to read about the original research about Ivory Bangle Lady then you can do so here:
Details of the Pontus Skoglund Lab can be found at
The project details are here:
More general discussion of diversity in the Roman period can be found at:
Ivory Bangle Lady’s Wikipedia Page: