Race in Antiquity: The Ivory Bangle Lady

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

It sounds like a simple question that ought to have a straightforward answer, but both the question and its answer are far more complicated than they appear. In these posts, I dig into the topic to explore what we know, what we don’t know, and what we mean by race in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Part 9: The “Ivory Bangle Lady”

In the past entries in this series, we have talked a lot about theories of identity, how we can interpret (and sometimes misinterpret) both written and artistic sources, and the problems in knowing just who we mean by Greeks and Romans in the first place. Today we approach the question from a different angle, looking at one individual and the world she lived in.

Around 400 CE, a wealthy lady was buried near the Roman city of Eburacum (modern York) in northern Britain. She was buried with jewelry including an assortment of bangles, some of white ivory from Africa, others of black jet from Britain. Her name is not recorded, but she has come to be known, because of her jewelry, as the Ivory Bangle lady.

Examination of the Lady’s remains using the techniques of forensic anthropology shows that she was of African ancestry and had spent her childhood in a warmer climate, perhaps somewhere in southern Europe or North Africa. Her skull has features typical of sub-Saharan African populations and in fact the reference measurements that most closely match her skeletal morphology come from nineteenth-century black Americans. Although no indication of her skin color survives, it is almost certain that, if we passed her on the street today, we would describe her as a woman of color.

Roman York may seem like the last place we would expect to find evidence of racial diversity. It was the northernmost city in the Roman empire, just a little over a hundred kilometers from the Scottish frontier. There are few places in the Roman world that were farther from the cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean, yet archaeology has revealed late Roman York to have been a vibrantly multi-ethnic city. Individuals from Gaul, Italy, and Egypt are mentioned in Roman-period inscriptions from around York. Local potters made cooking vessels characteristic of North African cuisine. A Germanic king with his retinue of warriors is attested in the city backing the emperor Constantine’s rise to power. Not far away, in the forts along Hadrian’s Wall, soldiers were worshiping gods imported from Syria and Persia. A North African woman of Sub-Saharn African descent would have been right at home in such a place.

What did she think of herself? We have no way of knowing except to try to interpret the circumstances of her burial. The bangles with which she was buried may suggest a consciousness of being both African and British, although ivory and jet were both prized in late Roman jewelry. They certainly, however, point to a family of wealth and status. The remains of a wooden box were also found in the grave, including a decorative mount carved with the text “Hail, sister, may you live in God” (AVE S[OR]OR VIVAS IN DEO). The text suggests a Christian connection, although the richness of the lady’s grave is at odds with the contemporary Christian preference for simple burial. The Lady may or may not have been Christian herself, but she certainly had contact with the Christian movement.

The most noteworthy thing about the Lady’s burial may be how unremarkable it is. It is in many ways an entirely typical late Roman provincial grave for a woman of high status. Her choice of jewelry may have been meant to say something about her origin, but it was a choice that would not have stood out among her peers. She was in touch with one of the major religious movements of the day but buried in a traditional fashion; she was neither ahead of nor behind the times. If we had only the grave goods and not the remains, there would be nothing to suggest that the deceased belonged to an ethnic minority.

The most important thing for us to learn from the Ivory Bangle Lady is this paradox: the relative scarcity of people of African origin in the ancient Mediterranean literary record is the product of their presence, not their absence. There were enough North Africans in York to influence the local pottery market, but in most respects they were just like other provincial Romans. They followed the same social trends and religious developments as their neighbors. They had come as soldiers in Roman service, as merchants, or as travelers, just like the Gauls, Italians, and Germans who also ended up in York. They were of all genders and lived at all levels of provincial society, from the bottom to the very top. Among them were people with features typical of sub-Saharan Africa and who would likely appear to us as black, but in their historical context, they were just Romans like everybody else.

If there were women like the Ivory Bangle Lady in York, the farthest Roman city from Africa, then people of black African descent cannot have been uncommon in the cosmopolitan cities of the Mediterranean. If they are not evident to us in the sources, it is in part because they were so commonplace and so thoroughly integrated into ancient Mediterranean culture that contemporary authors didn’t feel the need to mention them. People tend not to write about the ordinary. We know this well enough from modern social media: our Facebook friends and Twitter celebrities mostly post about the unusual things that happen to them, good or bad, not the everyday events of a typical day. The same principle applies, even more so, to ancient authors, given how much more costly and difficult it was to put their observations onto papyrus in ink than it is to fire off a tweet today.

Archaeology, especially with current developments in genetic research, may provide us with individual cases like the Ivory Bangle Lady, but most of the racial diversity of ancient populations will always be invisible to us because most graves don’t survive in good enough condition and the resources available for research are limited. But individual cases like late Roman York are a reminder that there was nothing the least bit unusual about people of many different backgrounds and—in modern terms—different races living side by side in antiquity.

Further reading

H. Cool, “An Overview of the Small Finds from Catterick,” in Cataractonium: Roman Catterick and its Hinterland ed. P. Wilson. York: Council for British Archaeology, 2002, 23-43

S. Leach et al., “A Lady of York: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain,” Antiquity 84, no. 323 (March, 2010): 131-45.

Patrick Ottaway, Roman York. Stroud: Tempus, 2004.

V. G. Swan, “Legio VI and its Men: African Legionaries in Briatin,” Roman Pottery Studies, 5 (1992): 1-33

R. Warwick, “The Skeletal Remains,” in The Romano-British Cemetery at Trentholme Drive, York, ed. Leslie P. Wenham. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1968, 113-76

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Modern artist’s reconstruction of the burial of the Ivory Bangle Lady, from Leach, “A Lady of York.”

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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Cheddar Man: A European Mesolithic Male with Blue Eyes and Brown Skin

I saw these headers go by earlier this spring, but didn’t really have time to really dive into it until now. Well, better late than never, as they wisely say. 🙂

Despite the name, the Cheddar Man isn’t some silly cheese ad bloke. Instead, he has opened doors to very intriguing discoveries about European population during the later Stone Age.

The remains of an anatomically modern human male from about 10,000 years ago were found near Bristol in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England in 1903. Recent DNA analysis of the skeleton—Britain’s oldest (almost) complete one—suggests that he had blue eyes, dark curly or wavy hair, and dark brown to black skin.

Natural History Museum Tom Barnes Cheddar Man Bust Closeup

They also found that the Cheddar Man belonged to the same population as Mesolithic individuals whose bones were recovered from Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary, usually referred to as western European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers or European early modern humans.

Hannah Devlin at The Guardian writes most aptly:

“The discovery shows that the genes for lighter skin became widespread in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today.

“Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, said: ‘It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.’”

A new bust model of Cheddar Man was made by Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions. (See a photo of the previous model made by a team at the University of Manchester here.) They took measurements of the skeleton, scanned the skull, and 3D printed a base for their model. Then they applied certain conventions to shape the face.

I fully confess I’m having a hard time keeping track of the exact timespans and geographical limits of the various Stone Age eras in Eurasia and Africa—what’s paleolithic, mesolithic, or neolithic and where and at what time. But it is so fascinating (and delightful!) that we continue to develop new methods of finding more about our past, and that so many different disciplines seek to understand where we came from and what makes us tick.

Image: closeup of the model of Cheddar Man by Tom Barnes / Channel 4 via Natural History Museum, London

Game of Thrones Stamps to Be Published in U.K.

Royal Mail in Britain is releasing Game of Thrones stamps. The Character Stamp Set focuses on popular characters:

Royal Mail GoT Character Stamp Set Jan 2018

According to the BBC, an additional five-stamp sheet is also going to be published. It features giants, direwolves, dragons, the Iron Throne, and the Night King and his undead White Walkers.

The stamps will be available at post offices across the U.K. or by calling Royal Mail’s customer service line from next Tuesday, January 23, 2018. Pre-orderes on the Royal Mail website are also possible.

I’m counting 5 women and 5 men on the Character Stamp Set. Counted another way, 4 Starks (go, Starks!), 4 Lannisters, and Daenerys plus old dame Tyrell. Cool cool cool!

Found via File 770.

Image via Royal Mail

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Boudica

ENG151196034 01The story of Boudica, the British queen who led a rebellion against the Romans in Britain, is well known, one of the most celebrated acts of resistance against the Roman empire. It is also a useful case study in how imperial states and conquered peoples interact with one another.

Boudica was the wife of King Prasutagus of the Iceni, a tribe in eastern Britain. Prasutagus was an ally of the Romans. Like many other local leaders, he had supported the Romans in their conquest of southern Britain in return for Roman support for his own position as king. Prasutagus wanted to secure the same relationship for his daughters when they inherited his position, but when he died the Romans did not follow his wishes and moved to take direct control of Icenian territory.

Starting in 60 or 61 Boudica led a revolt on behalf of her daughters that quickly gathered support from all around Britain. The main force of the Roman army in Britain was then campaigning in Wales. The rebels first targeted the city of Camulodunum (modern Colchester, in eastern Britain north of London) which had become a focus of British resentment because of the number of Roman army veterans settled there and the temple to the emperor Claudius which had been built with British tax money. The city was systematically destroyed and the small number of forces which had been dispatched for its defense were wiped out.

The rebels moved on to sack London and nearby Verulamium (modern St. Albans), two more important Roman centers. By this time, the Roman governor with his army was moving to oppose Boudica’s forces. Nevertheless, she persisted.

The two armies met somewhere along the main Roman road that connected London and the ports in Kent with the frontier in northern Wales. The precise location of the battlefield has not been identified. Despite heavy fighting, the British forces were defeated and the rebellion came to an end.

The conflict between Boudica and the Romans represents the kind of fundamental misunderstandings that happen between imperial powers and the peoples over whom they rule. Prasutagus expected the Romans to respect his wishes, accept his daughters as his heirs, and continue the client state relationship that the Iceni had enjoyed under his rule. He thought that he could deal with Rome in the same terms as he would deal with a rival British king and that the Romans would respect the same customs and practices that were common in Britain. The Romans, for their part, misunderstood the British. They did not conceive that Prasutagus’ daughters could be worthy partners in political matters or that Boudica could present a serious military threat. Further, they badly misjudged the level of discontent among the people of Britain. If they had grasped the speed with which Boudica would be able to assemble an army hundreds of thousands strong, they would not have risked leaving the core of the province so poorly defended.

Since no British account of the uprising survives, we are dependent on Roman sources for information about it and these Roman accounts show another layer of misunderstanding. The two principal recountings of the revolt offer two different reasons for its beginning. The historian Tacitus claims that the local Roman officials charged with taking control of Icenian territory beat Boudica and raped her daughters. The historian Cassius Dio instead asserts that Britain was driven into revolt when large loans that had been made to the local people were all called in at once. Both of these accounts are suspect. For Tacitus’ version, it was an old Roman custom to explain difficult political events with stories of mistreated women, from Aeneas’ callousness to Dido (which explained the enmity between Rome and Carthage) to Antonius’ infatuation with Cleopatra and abandonment of his marriage to Octavia (which explained the last Roman civil war). As for Dio’s story, money-lenders had a bad reputation in Rome and their underhanded practices were often blamed for fomenting unrest. In both cases, shifting blame away from the Roman administration itself—onto moneylenders or minor local officials—preserved the honor of the Roman state as a whole. The Britons weren’t really rebelling against the imperial system, these sources say, just venting understandable anger at individual acts of abuse.

The scope and swiftness of the revolt, however, suggest that there was much deeper and broader resentment in Britain than Tacitus or Dio was willing to recognize. Boudica’s uprising was the final push on a boulder that was ready to roll. While not all Britons had royal inheritances to contest, many people in the province must have faced problems not unlike Boudica’s. In the early 60s, Britain had been under Roman rule for a generation and, as in Prasutagus’ family, around this time the generation that had lived through the conquest was giving way to one that had grown up under the stresses of Roman rule. Generational experiences make a difference and the forces that one generation was willing to live with on negotiated terms, the next may find intolerable. Britain is not the only place where the Roman empire faced revolt in the post-conquest generation.

Image: “Boadicea Haranguing the Britons” via Wikimedia (National Portrait Gallery, London; 1793; oil on canvas; by John Opie)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Hadrian’s Wall… In Legos!

Brick to the Past is a British Lego-building group that bases their creations on historical landscapes and architecture. One of their builds from last year was inspired by Hadrian’s Wall. The layout combines a stretch of wall, a Roman fortress and town, a milecastle (one of the fortified gateways placed at one-mile intervals), and a native village.

Hadrian's Wall by Brick to the Past
Hadrian’s Wall by Brick to the Past

The buildings are full of delightful details and clever Legosmithing, like the use of a cogwheel over the main door of the bathhouse to represent the wild-haired head that was often associated with springs and baths in Roman Britain, like this fine example from Aquae Sulis (present-day Bath).

The bathhouse by Brick to the Past
The bathhouse by Brick to the Past
Pediment from Aquae Sulis
Pediment from Aquae Sulis, detail of photograph by Velvet via Wikimedia (Bath; 1st c. CE; stone)

Hadrian would be proud. Here’s a picture of the original, from Milecastle 37. They do kind of look like Legos, don’t they?

Milecastle 37, photograph by Erik Jensen
Milecastle 37, photograph by Erik Jensen

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.