The Ivory Bangle Lady and the multi-culturalism of Roman Britain

Roman mosaic of a woman, British Museum |  Pixabay | Public Domain

Picture the residents of Roman Britain, and chances are the faces that pop into your mind are white. After all, this was a period that predated multiculturalism by many, many centuries, right? Well, some major archaeological discoveries have forced us to question the received wisdom about this chapter in our history. As myth-busting historian Dr Fern Riddell explores in an episode of Sky History’s Not What You Thought You Knew podcast, Roman Britain may have actually been a melting pot of migrants from across the Empire. And one of the biggest keys to unlocking the secrets of that era comes to us in the form of a woman who was buried in a stone sarcophagus in York.

Known as the 'Ivory Bangle Lady', she was discovered in 1901. The find was significant not just because of the well-preserved skeleton within the stone coffin, but also the presence of an array of funerary artefacts dating to the 4th Century, including pendants, earrings and the ivory bangles that would inspire the anonymous woman’s unofficial name. There was also a blue glass jug, a mirror and – perhaps most intriguingly of all – a decorative mount inscribed with the words 'Hail Sister, May You Live in God'.

'The stone sarcophagus she was buried in, and the richness of the grave goods, means she was a very wealthy woman, absolutely from the top end of York society,' says archaeologist Dr Hella Eckhardt, whose site, Romans Revealed, covers the Ivory Bangle Lady among other finds.

What do we know about the Ivory Bangle Lady? Well, scientific analysis confirms she died young – between the ages of around 18 and 23 – and that she likely had a fairly sedate lifestyle. The remains show no markings that would suggest a tough or strenuous existence, which reinforces the idea that she was from a wealthy background – either married into money, or hailing from a well-to-do family.

And then there’s the headline-making matter of her ethnicity. In the words of a paper co-written by Dr Eckhardt, analysis of the skull revealed that 'the facial characteristics of this female exhibited a mix of "black" and "white" ancestral traits'. The consensus is that she had North African ancestry, but that she was raised either in the Mediterranean area, or Western Europe (as indicated by oxygen and strontium isotope analysis of the remains).

The fact that someone we would today consider a woman of colour was not only living in 4th Century York, but was also part of the wealthy elite, emphasises just how diverse society was in Roman Britain. It’s reasonable to assume that, unless she was some unique outlier, the existence of the Ivory Bangle Lady implies numerous other BAME people occupied lofty positions in British society at that time.

In the case of York, the Roman population may have had more diverse origins than the city has now.'

As the paper co-authored by Dr Eckhardt tells us, 'The case of the "Ivory Bangle Lady" 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. Instead, it is clear that both women and children moved across the Empire, often associated with the military.'

Dr Eckhardt herself has been even more explicit about the significance of the find, saying that it reveals 'a population mix which is much closer to contemporary Britain than previous historians had suspected. In the case of York, the Roman population may have had more diverse origins than the city has now.'

The message on the mount, 'Hail Sister, May You Live in God', hints that she may also have been a Christian, which would add another tantalising layer to the story of the Lady, and underscore the rich mingling of cultural identities and beliefs that occurred across the countries and continents of the Empire.

These kinds of findings haven’t been universally welcomed in our highly polarised and volatile times, when questions of ethnic identity, immigration and what it means to be 'from' or 'of' a nation swirly hotly on social media. A paper by archaeologist Dr Emily Hanscam, titled Postnationalism and the Past: The Politics of Theory in Roman Archaeology, looks at the hostile reaction by online commenters to the revelations around the Ivory Bangle Lady. Hanscam quotes one angered member of the public who said: 'The fact that a single foreigner may (or may not) have visited Britain in the 4th Century does not make Britain a historically multiracial society.'

'As experts on the past,' Dr Hanscam writes, 'it is difficult for archaeologists to strike a balance between speaking with authority and not wishing to "dictate" the "truth" about the past – the latter linked with imperialism and other repressive power structures.'

It’s discoveries like the Ivory Bangle Lady that will help challenge these power structures and correct our misguided (though fiercely held) preconceptions about the past.