2021 - 2022 Modern Volume 18

Thousands of Years before Windrush: The Significance of Black Romans in Ancient Britain

By Hannah McCann. (REPRINT FROM VOLUME 13)

As part of the English National Curriculum in primary school, students are taught about the impact of the Roman Empire in Britain. However, I highly doubt that many people reading this article were taught about the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ of York or the North African soldiers that were stationed near Carlisle. History needs to be taught in its entirety and that includes the significant contribution that Africans made to Roman Britain. 

In 1901, a stone sarcophagus was discovered underneath a main road in the city of York. While the objects found in the sarcophagus were incredible – a mix of jewellery and a mirror – it was the skeleton that was the most significant aspect of the discovery. When the skull was analysed, archaeologists found that the skeleton was that of a young woman – most probably from North Africa. 

The sarcophagus was found amongst other graves but hers contained the most riches, so it is presumed that she would have been the wealthiest. This completely goes against the common misconception that Africans in Roman Britain were only there as slaves. She was a rich woman who held a high status in a diverse city, with archaeologists suggesting that Roman York was more diverse than modern-day York. She was nicknamed the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ due to her bracelets that epitomized the diversity of Roman Britain. One bracelet was made of Yorkshire jet and the other one was formed from African ivory.  She was a young, rich black woman who held a position of power in the city.

While tests have shown that the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ did not grow up in Africa but in the South of England or on the European continent, her parents probably came to Britain with the Roman Army as it swept across Europe. This army contained troops from North Africa, some of whom were positioned in north Cumbria near Hadrian’s Wall. In 1934, an inscribed stone was found that detailed a unit of North African soldiers that had come to the local garrison. Traces of their stay have also been found in a Roman document that lists them as an auxiliary unit of North Africans. Their garrison was part of a Roman fort in Aballava in the third century. A church was later built on the site of the fort and a plaque was recently placed there to commemorate “The first recorded African community in Britain”. 

A photo of Hadrian’s Wall.

It is interesting to note that the Romans were not racist by today’s standards. They did not have a concept of race. To them, skin colour was just another physical characteristic that had no bearing on how an individual was treated – like eye colour or hair colour. That is not to say that the Romans were not prejudiced. For the Romans, Roman citizenship was the most important aspect of your identity alongside your status as a free man or a slave. These were the factors that caused discrimination – not skin colour. 

Today, when we think of Ancient Roman statues, we picture the white marble and assume that this is their original form – a dangerous misconception that has been encouraged by racist historians and white supremacists to argue for the ‘purity’ of the white Western world. For example, Johann Winckelmann (seen as the father of art history) said that “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is.” However, analysis of these statues has shown that they were in fact painted to match the model’s skin colour, but the pigment has faded over time. How different would our perception of the past be if ancient statues were repainted to reflect the multicultural world from which they came? 

A photo of a white marble Roman statue. 

History has been whitewashed to remove the diversity of the Roman Empire and to propagate the lie of white dominance. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of black history in the National Curriculum which means that black children grow up without seeing themselves represented in the past or learning of the important role that black people played in British history. 

Sources: 

Articles on the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/feb/26/roman-york-skeleton

Ivory Bangle Lady

https://www.ourmigrationstory.org.uk/oms/roman-britain-the-ivory-bangle-lady

Articles on the North African Roman soldiers: 

BLACKS IN BRITAIN BEFORE THE ARRIVAL OF THE EMPIRE WINDRUSH

https://www.anglicannews.org/news/2016/07/cumbrian-church-is-site-of-britain%E2%80%99s-first-african-settlement.aspx

Articles on Septimius Severus:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Septimius-Severus

Articles on racism in the Roman Empire: 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2017/aug/07/mary-beard-romans-ancient-evidence

Articles on the true colour of ancient statues: 

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/29/the-myth-of-whiteness-in-classical-sculpture

https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/gods-in-color-ancient-world-polychromy/index.html

Images: 

Hadrian’s Wall west of Housesteads 3.jpg, Steven Fruitsmaak, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Roman Statue.jpg, Arad, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0