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Africans in Roman York?

posted 1 Mar 2010, 14:08 by Paul Brayford   [ updated 1 Feb 2016, 15:24 ]
Research by University of Reading's Department of Archaeology, working with the Yorkshire Museum's collections has featured heavily in local, regional and national news in the last week. The original press release from the University of Reading is repeated below.

Reconstruction drawing of the funeral of the Ivory Bangle Lady. Copyright 2008 

Reconstruction drawing of the funeral of the Ivory Bangle Lady. Copyright 2008 Aaron Watson/University of Reading.

Computerised reconstruction of how the Ivory Bangle Lady could have looked. Copyright: Dr Hella Eckardt/University of Reading.
New forensic techniques in archaeology reveal existence of high status Africans living in 4th Century AD York

A picture of multi-cultural Britain in 4th Century AD has been revealed using the latest forensic techniques in archaeology. The new research, published in the March issue of the journal Antiquity, demonstrates that Roman York of the period had individuals of North African descent moving in the highest social circles.

The research was conducted by the University of Reading's Department of Archaeology, working with the Yorkshire Museum's collections. It will feature in the museum's brand new exhibition opening in August 2010, which aims to throw new light on the diversity of populations living in Roman York. 

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the research used modern forensic ancestry assessment and isotope (oxygen and strontium) analysis of Romano-British skeletal remains such as the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady', in conjunction with evidence from grave goods buried with her.

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."

"To date, we have had to rely on evidence of such foreigners in Roman Britain from inscriptions. However, by analysing the facial features of the Ivory Bangle Lady and measuring her skull compared to reference populations, analysing the chemical signature of the food and drink she consumed, as well as evaluating the evidence from the burial site, we are now able to establish a clear profile of her ancestry and social status.

It helps paint a picture of a Roman York that was hugely diverse and which included among its population, men, women and children of high status from Romanised North Africa and elsewhere in the Mediterranean."

The ancestry assessment suggests a mixture of ‘black' and ‘white' ancestral traits, and the isotope signature indicates that she may have come from somewhere slightly warmer than the UK. Taken together with the evidence of an unusual burial rite and grave goods, the evidence all points to a high status incomer to Roman York. It seems likely that she is of North African descent, and may have migrated to York from somewhere warmer, possibly the Mediterranean.

The Ivory Bangle Lady was a high status young woman who was buried in Roman York (Sycamore Terrace). Dated to the second half of the fourth century, her grave contains jet and elephant ivory bracelets, earrings, pendants, beads, a blue glass jug and a glass mirror. The most famous object from this burial is a rectangular openwork mount of bone, possibly from an unrecorded wooden casket, which reads "Hail, sister, may you live in God", indicating Christian beliefs.

The skeleton and grave goods will be included in the Yorkshire Museum's new exhibition entitled Roman York: Meet the People of the Empire. This will open in August 2010 following a major £2 million refurbishment of the whole museum.

Eboracum (York) was both a legionary fortress and civilian settlement, and ultimately became the capital of Britannia Inferior. York was also visited by two Emperors, the North-African-born Emperor Septimius Severus, and later Constantius I (both of whom died in York). All these factors provide potential circumstances for immigration to York, and for the foundation of a multicultural and diverse community. 

The research is funded by AHRC and the full paper can be found on Antiquity's website at  

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