Digging up migration history: The Ivory Bangle Lady

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To celebrate Black History Month 2017, we will post a story every week from our award-winning online teaching resource Our Migration Story. This week, learn from Dr Hella Eckardt's research about the Ivory Bangle Lady from York, who lived in Roman Britain during the 4th century AD.

One way we can learn about early migration history is through the work of archaeologists, who have studied human remains to learn more about the people of Roman Britain. For example, the grave of a young woman was discovered in 1901 in Sycamore Terrace York; she was buried in a stone sarcophagus with very rich grave goods (objects placed into a burial for the afterlife, or as an offering to the dead) in the later 4th century. The objects placed into her grave included bracelets made from local jet and more exotic ones made of ivory. A short inscription on a bone mount, that once probably decorated a box, suggests that this high status young woman was a Christian as it says ‘Hail, sister, may you live in God’. Recently, the skull and teeth of her skeleton, which have been stored in Yorkshire Museum, were examined by scientists at the University of Reading.

The shape of her skull suggests that she had North African ancestry; this is not very surprising in a place like York, where inscriptions and written sources mention Africans. People from Africa who came to Britain include the Emperor Septimius Severus, who was born in what is Now Libya and ruled from AD 193-211.

Archaeological scientists can also analyse the chemical signatures preserved in human teeth. The ratios of stable isotopes such as oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and strontium in human teeth can provide information about ancient diet and origin. Oxygen and strontium signatures vary depending on the climate and underlying geology of the area where an individual grew up. Individuals from hot, coastal, areas will have a different signature to those who grew up in cooler areas of continental Europe. However, it is important to stress that isotope analysis is better at excluding local origin (i.e. an individual’s signature is very different from the local signatures) than pinpointing a specific area of origin (i.e. many areas have similar isotope signatures).

Studies of the remains of the Ivory Bangle Lady suggest that she was born and brought up in the south of Britain, or the continent, rather than in Africa. Archaeologists can interpret this finding in a number of ways. For example, it is possible that one parent of the Ivory Bangle Lady was from North Africa, but that she grew up in a different part of the Empire. Other skeletons from York and other Romano-British towns show that some incomers (as identified by their isotopic signatures) look almost like locals in terms of their burial rites and grave goods, while some archaeologically very exotic burials are in fact those of people born locally. Why could this be? We need to consider the fact that the dead do not bury themselves. Grave goods and burial rites might be shaped by parents or partners who had a different geographical origin to the deceased. A few hundred skeletons from the Roman period have now been studied by scientists using what is a very expensive technique, and the results show high levels of mobility and migration – up to 30% in some towns. However, the sample study is biased as it examines mostly unusual and exotic burials, so actual migration levels were likely much lower.  A different picture of movement would probably emerge if countryside burials for the same period were sampled.

For the full migration story, and links to further resources on Africans in Roman Britain, see the Our Migration Story online resource.

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