Ivory Bangle Lady: Black lives in Roman Britain

Eva – Year 10 Student

Editor’s note: This short essay was recently entered into the GSAL Black History Essay Writing Competition, organized by The GSAL Journal and UPSoc to coincide with Black History Month. Open to all students in Year 10-13, the purpose of the competition was to encourage students to undertake independent research, think critically and communicate clearly about an aspect of black history of interest to them. The Competition Poster provides more information about the competition brief and success criteria. CPD

The ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ was the remains of a woman, discovered in York in 1901. Named after the elephant ivory bracelets she was buried with, the lady is estimated to have been of high status and extreme wealth. Found buried with her was a multitude of lavish items including: ivory and bone bracelets, earrings, pendants, beads, a glass mirror, and jet. Her bones were dated to the second half of the 4th century, which was during the period of the Roman Empire.

The most famous object was a shard of bone she was discovered alongside: there inscribed ‘SOROR AVE VIVAS IN DEO’, which translates from Latin to ‘hail sister may you live in god’, suggesting she may have been a Christian. The University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology analysed her facial features. In addition, the chemical signature of the food and drink in her remains, which revealed what she consumed in childhood. This, alongside the items she was buried with, taught us she was of North African descent.

Black people have had a presence in our history for centuries. Get over it.

David Olusoga

It was honestly never in doubt that Roman Britain was a highly multi-ethnic society due to the nature of the large Roman Empire, encompassing an area of 5 million square kilometres. However, historians at the time were shocked by the notion that black people could have held such clearly high status in this great roman city of Eboracum.

The discovery of the Ivory Bangle Lady’s remains fully unearthed that people of colour could have been more than enslaved or merchants – their only presumed roles in the early 20th century.

Fast forward a hundred years…and the controversy doesn’t end there.

Professor Mary Beard, a leading classicist, was attacked on social media when she confirmed that there had been black Romans in Britain (she used the ivory bangle lady as crucial evidence). This had derived from the political football started when a children’s cartoon on the BBC had displayed a black person in their short on Hadrian’s wall.

Certain individuals were in a twist about the whole matter, complaining about the need for so-called ‘political correctness’ when discussing ancient Rome, despite the existence of North Africans being confirmed a century earlier.

It is astonishing that there is still a need to debate over facts that were irrefutably proven 100 years ago. We have proof of dinosaurs walking our Earth and the evidence of their existence is far older than ancient Rome.

One can only assume that people cannot accept diversity has always existed in this country, purely because of their own prejudice. Ivory bangle lady; the subsequent discovery of Beachy Head lady and all the black Roman bodies we haven’t yet found form part of our rich British history.

It would be undeniably beneficial for the general public if we can all agree that, as was so rightfully put by David Olusoga: ‘Black people have had a presence in our history for centuries. Get over it’. Eva


https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/12/black-people-presence-in-british-history-for-centuries- David Olusoga


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