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article imageAfrican woman among elite in 4th century Britain, scientists say

By R. C. Camphausen     Mar 1, 2010 in Science
Forensic techniques used in contemporary archeology reveal that Africans were among the elite during the Roman occupation of the British isles. A skull found in an elaborate grave reveals the deceased to be an African "Lady of Distinction".
Although an exhibition centering on the so-called Ivory Bangle Lady is only planned for August 2010, in the Yorkshire Museum, her portrait and her story are already making the rounds right now. Under titles such as "Africans in Roman York", "Roman remains in York are 'elite' African woman", or "Revealed: The African queen who called York home in the 4th century", news agencies and websites are calling attention to the fact that 4th century Britain - usually imagined as purely Caucasian - apparently had Africans among its citizens.
The official story, which has already drawn criticism, tries to tell a tale that ancient Britain was more or less as multi-cultural as the present one. The Mail Online story, who describes the skull as that of a queen, quotes senior lecturer Dr Hella Eckhard of the University of Reading's Department of Archaeology, as saying this: ... by analysing the facial features of the Ivory Bangle Lady and measuring her skull, analysing the chemical signature of the food and drink she consumed, and analysing evidence from the burial site we are now able to establish a clear profile of her ancestry and social status. We're looking at 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. This skull is particularly interesting, because 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.
Adds the BBC, from the same scientist: "Multi-cultural Britain is not just a phenomenon of more modern times."
Very much the same view is expressed on the Museum's website, where it says 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.
However, and that was soon pointed out in comments, the fact that a rich burial of a woman of African descent has been found in York, in a stone coffin near Sycamore Terrace, does not say much about Britain. Rather, it tells us something about the Roman Empire of the time which had a different set of rules for being a slave, a citizen, or a member of the elite.
One can only agree with the commenter at the Mail Online when she writes: Britain wasn't multicultural, Rome was. Regardless of where one came from within the Roman empire, you were a Roman if you fulfilled certain criteria.
In any case, the upcoming museum exhibit should be worthwhile. The historical woman with the new name Ivory Bangle Lady had been assigned this name because of two ivory bangles that were discovered with the her remains, as was an exquisite pristine blue glass jar.
The Ivory Bangle Lady and her burial gifts will be the centrepiece of the exhibition in August, which is entitled Roman York: Meet the People Of The Empire. York was known as Eboracum during Roman Times, had a legendary fortress and was a civilian settlement that had been visited by at least two Roman emperors.
An inscribed, rectangular piece of bone was also found in her grave, with the text "Hail, sister, may you live in God" carved into it. Considering that Christianity became the state religion of Rome in the latter 4th century, this may indicate that the word god refers to the Christian rather than an African one.
More about African elite, Britain, History, 4th century, York