Updated: Oct 5, 2021
Black History Month UK 2021 'Black to the Past' campaign - African Romans in Britain
By its very design, the Roman Empire was an extremely diverse and multicultural place. Through trade, logistical or military movements, civilian migrations both voluntary and forced, people travelled within an Empire that ruled one-fifth of the ancient global population.
Burial remains and tomb inscriptions demonstrate the diversity of Roman Britain. Inscriptions carved into stone to commemorate the dead on tombs, or to record who set up an altar to the gods, show that people came not only from Italy, but also from Gaul, North Africa and Spain; in the later Roman period new troops were recruited from Germany and even from beyond the frontiers of the Empire. The Roman conquest of Britain led to the migration of many soldiers and administrators, merchants and also women and children. Evidence suggests that, over time, these newcomers and the local population intermarried, and that the populations in major urban and military sites were very diverse.
In 1901, a group of Roman graves were found by workmen cutting a line for a new railway on Sycamore Terrace. The area was once part of a sprawling cemetery on the fringes of Eboracum, Roman York. One of the richest graves found, was a high status Christian woman buried in a stone coffin with luxury goods including jewellery made from elephant ivory and Whitby jet. For over a century, the female nicknamed the 'Ivory Bangle Lady' was interpreted as an important Christian woman of Roman York, but little consideration was given to her origins.
In 2010, a team of archaeologists from the University of Reading re-examined her skeletal remains and their findings challenged assumptions about the diversity of the ancient Roman city. Hella Eckhardt, senior lecturer at the department of archaeology at Reading University, said. "In the case of York, the Roman population may have had more diverse origins than the city has now."
Using ancestry assessment, they found that the skeleton of the Ivory Bangle Lady was a young woman aged between 18-23 years with a mixture of 'black' and 'white' ancestral traits. Isotope analysis revealed that she had spent her early years in a warmer climate, while her skull shape suggested she had some North African ancestry. Taken together with the evidence of an unusual burial rite and grave goods, the evidence all pointed to a high-status incomer to Roman York. It seems likely that the Ivory Bangle Lady was of North African descent and may have migrated to York from somewhere warmer, possibly the Mediterranean.
The Ivory Bangle Lady had one of the richest graves and was buried with bracelets, earrings, pendants, beads, a blue glass jug, likely to contain cosmetics or perfume, and a glass mirror. The most famous object was a rectangular openwork mount of bone, possibly from an unrecorded wooden casket, which read "Hail, sister, may you live in God," indicating Christian beliefs. All suggesting that she held a high-ranking position within Roman York.
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."
The skeleton and the grave goods of the Ivory Bangle Lady are on display in the Yorkshire Museum.