Wednesday, August 11, 2010

GRAVE GOODS: Diversity in 4th Century Roman Britain

By Maureen Osborne

In both archaeology and anthropology, grave goods is a term used to identify artifacts found in burial grounds. Arianna Franklin (aka Diana Norman) used the term to title her 3rd book in the Mistress of the Art of Death series about Adelia Aguilar an Italian doctor in 12th century England. Adelia travels with an Arab manservant by the name of Mansur, who is both confidant and moral compass. In her novel, he is respected and revered. The prevailing thought by modern scientists was that Africans were slaves of “low-status” in Roman Britain. Yet, new technology has revealed that graves and their goods have a different story to tell.

In a recent article published by Antiquity, a new forensic technology has revealed that a skull taken from a grave unearthed in 1901 is that of a woman of black ancestry. The grave in Bootham, York, was the site of Eboracum, a Roman stronghold in forth century AD. It was not unusual for African males to migrate from Roman North Africa with the Roman Army; however those migrations typically did not include women and children.

Upon discovery, the stone sarcophagus contained items that were normally found in the graves of wealthy individuals (ivory bangles, perfume bottle and mirror) who had access to tradesmen. Her skeleton revealed that she was between 18 and 23, did not live a strenuous life and minerals in her teeth could be traced to North Africa. The skull measurements establish an African connection. Also in the grave, was a bone fragment, inscribed a phrase that translates into “Hail sister, may you live in God” which suggests Christian belief.

Dubbed the “Ivory Bangle Lady” for the African ivory and Yorkshire jet bangles found in her grave along with other items will be on display at the Yorkshire Museum.

Historical fiction writers and readers find that research and reading often prompts further study. After reading Georgette Heyer’s, THE SPANISH BRIDE, I went on to study Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign and the Battle of Waterloo. Making history come alive is what Historical Fiction writers do and do very well, and with this new discovery, even more can enjoy.

A LADY OF YORK: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain, published in the March edition of the journal Antiquity. The Yorkshire Museum’s “Ivory Bangle Lady” will be on display in the exhibit, Roman York: Meet the People of the Empire, which opened on August 1, 2010.♥

Maureen Osborne continues to work on her historical romance.


  1. I was just thinking that today we don't "add" anything to our coffins. The most we get is a little plaque with a name and a date. I wonder what -- if anything -- archeologists or historians will get from our graves.

    I saw the King Tut exhibit in Philadelphia before it came to NY. It made me realize that most museums are dug up grave sites. Weird. Thanks for the info, Maureen.

  2. Maureen, thanks for the heads up. I went online and read the British newspaper articles. It is finds like these that help us to write historical fiction. My dates are later, but I could certainly see a beautiful, highborn North African woman kidnapped by Vikings and brought to their village in the far North, where her grace and intelligence brings her to the attention of the chieftain and between passionate embraces she counsels him on the best way to conquer the goodness, I'm writing my Nano novel. lol Great blog--thanks. Elizabeth Palladino