REYAHN KING tells the story of York's 'Ivory Bangle Lady'

THE Yorkshire Museum Roman Galleries contain insights into many lives in Roman York including Emperor Constantine and a standard bearer of the famous Ninth Legion.

But my personal favourite is the woman affectionately known as the Ivory Bangle Lady.

Eboracum, Roman York, was founded in 71 CE. As a legionary fortress and a civilian settlement, it became part of an Empire that included Europe, much of North Africa and into the Middle East.

As a key provincial capital, Eboracum was visited by Emperors Septimius Severus, Constantius I and Constantine, who was in York when he was declared Emperor.

In 1901, workmen cutting a path for the railway found a stone coffin in Sycamore Terrace off Bootham.

Roman graves often line roads leading out of towns and cities and this grave is a short distance from the old Roman road leading out of Eboracum. Unfortunately the stone coffin is now lost but the record of its existence suggests a high status burial. The sarcophagus would have been an expensive commission. Fewer than fifty are known from Roman York.

The coffin contained a skeleton of a woman, laid to rest with a range of unusual objects. She wore bangles of elephant ivory as well as bangles made from Whitby jet. Ivory and jet are both types of jewellery associated with high status women. She was also wearing a large necklace of blue-glass beads and a pair of yellow-glass earrings.

Surprise find by the roadside:

York Press:

ABOVE: Blue glass necklace from a grave found at Sycamore Terrace, York  Photo: Gareth Buddo, copyright the Yorkshire Museum

A miniature blue-glass bottle probably contained a perfume or embalming liquid. A small, convex glass disc may have been used as a mirror.

Blue-glass was often imported from the Rhineland. The objects demonstrate York’s trade connections right across the Roman Empire.

The most famous object found in this grave group is the small bone plaque bearing a fragmentary inscription.

Originally this read: SOROR AVE VIVAS IN DEO which translates as “Hail sister! May you live in God”. This inscription is one of only three pieces of evidence indicative of Christianity in Roman York.

By 314 CE the city had one of four Christian bishops in Britain. However, the Ivory Bangle Lady’s rich grave goods and concern with personal appearance are unlike other early Christian burials. We cannot be sure whether Ivory Bangle Lady was a practicing Christian. The number of objects added into her grave and the manner of her burial suggest that this is a Pagan funeral, into which the addition of this Christian inscription is curious.

She could have been a practicing Christian, but equally the plaque could have been a gift from a Christian friend or family member.

Researchers at the Department of Archaeology at Reading University have used forensic techniques in archaeology to find out more. The research used modern ancestry assessment and isotope (oxygen and strontium) analysis.

Mystery of the 'Ivory Bangle Lady' solved

York Press:

ABOVE: Ivory Bangle Lady copyright Aaron Watson University of Reading

The research revealed that Ivory Bangle Lady was about 5 foot 1 inch tall and aged 18-23 at her time of death.

Her skeleton’s lack of pronounced muscle markings suggests that she led a life of comparative leisure.

By analysing her facial features and measuring her skull compared to reference populations, the ancestry assessment suggests that she was of mixed North African descent.

Analysing the chemical signature of the food and drink she consumed, the isotope evidence suggests that she spent her childhood either in the west of Britain or in coastal areas of Western Europe and the Mediterranean.

Taken together with the unusual burial and grave goods, the evidence all points to a high status Roman woman of North African descent who had moved to York. The connections built by the Roman Empire allowed migration to or from new places.

As the Reading University team pointed out in 2010: "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."

Ivory Bangle Lady's family came from North Africa, which helps to show that Roman York was a very cosmopolitan place. Other inscriptions, artefacts and study of skeletons also suggest a wide range of people from the Roman world were living here.

Ivory Bangle Lady’s presence aligns with other evidence of North African people in other parts of Roman Britain. Her case confirms the picture of a diverse population, including high status individuals from all over Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, living in Roman Britain.

Reyahn King is the chief executive officer of York Museums Trust