Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Multicultural Origins of Roman York

by Kathryn Hadley

According to the latest research by the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology, published in the March issue of the journal Antiquity, 4th-century Roman York was a multicultural town where individuals of North African descent moved in the highest social circles.

Archaeologists used the latest techniques in forensic ancestry assessment and isotope analysis to study Romano-British skeletal remains, in particular those of the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’, discovered in a stone coffin in August 1901 near Sycamore Terrace in York. The research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Strontium and oxygen isotopes are incorporated into the skeletal tissues of humans through the food and drink they ingest. Isotope analyses thus enable scientists to identify where individuals resided at the time of tissue formation in terms of geology (strontium) and climate (oxygen). The ancestry assessment and isotope signature of the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ suggests that she was of mixed ‘black’ and ‘white’ ancestry and may have come from somewhere slightly warmer than the UK.

Her grave is believed to date to the second half of the 4th century and contains jet and elephant ivory bracelets, earrings, pendants, beads, a blue glass jug and a glass mirror. These grave goods, as well as evidence of an unusual burial technique, further indicate that she was of high social status and not native to York. She may have been of North African descent and migrated to York from the Mediterranean.

In the words of Dr Hella Eckardt, Senior Lecturer at the University of Reading:
‘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 findings will feature in the Yorkshire Museum’s new exhibition ‘Roman York: Meet the People of the Empire’ due to open in August.
Read the press release on the website of the Yorkshire Museum.

- Reconstructed portrait of the Ivory Bangle Lady by Aaron Watson, University of Reading
- Gravegoods (copyright Yorkshire Museum)

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