The Mystery of the Ivory Bangle Lady

In 1901, archaeologists outside of York, England, discovered a series of graves dating from 4th century Roman Britain. One skeleton of a wealthy young woman of 18 or 19 was particularly intriguing: She was buried with several expensive items of jewelry, including an unusual pair of intertwined bracelets — one made from white African ivory, and the other carved from locally-found black jet.

The Ivory Bangle Lady, as she’d come to be known, was clearly wealthy and seemed to be in good health. But who was she?

We have an intriguing new clue:

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One of the richest inhabitants of fourth century Roman York, buried in a stone sarcophagus with luxury imports including jewelry made of elephant ivory, a mirror and a blue glass perfume jar, was a woman of black African ancestry, a re-examination of her skeleton has shown….

Isotope evidence suggests that up to 20% [of the skeletons] were probably long distance migrants. Some were African or had African ancestors, including the woman dubbed “the ivory bangle lady,” whose bone analysis shows she was brought up in a warmer climate, and whose skull shape suggests mixed ancestry including black features….

“We can’t tell if she was independently wealthy, or the wife or daughter of a wealthy man — but the bones show that she was young, between 18 and 23, and healthy with no obvious sign of disease or cause of death.”

The Romans didn’t have the kind of race-based prejudice found in our own history, so we shouldn’t be surprised at the presence of wealthy Africans. But upper-crust Africans living in a dismal Imperial backwater like 4th century Britannia? That’s odd, though there is a scenario that makes sense, if the young woman was indeed of “mixed ancestry”: A prominent Romano-British merchant with a trading route to Africa might have met and married an upper-class African woman on one of his trips. After having at least one daughter — the Ivory Bangle Lady — the family returned to York. The mysterious bracelet — made from African ivory and British jet — was a gift to the young woman (probably from her father) to represent her own origins.

The narrative fits, though it’s all just speculation. There was one other item found with the young woman,  and it puts a poignant cap on her story: Tucked into her sarcophagus, along with the jewelry, mirror and perfume, was a shard of bone, inscribed with the message, “Hail sister, may you live in God.” It appears the Ivory Bangle Lady — a wealthy African living on the collapsing frontier of the Roman Empire — was also a Christian, loved and missed.



  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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