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Africans in Roman York

March 1, 2010

Thanks to Mark for pointing out this article in the Times Online about the skeleton of a young African woman buried in York. She seems to have been wealthy, possibly a Christian, and – to judge by the state of her bones – unaccustomed to heavy work. There’s a fine photo of her reconstructed face in the article, which I daren’t reproduce here in case they sue me.

As Mark points out, ‘It makes you wonder about the level of cultural diversity that the Romans introduced when they came to Britain.’

It also makes me wonder about the accuracy of some news reporting, since  one or two articles in the ensuing media blizzard have promoted her to  ‘African Queen.’ This would be nice if it were true, but it’s completely unproven.

Unable to resist adding to the vast amount of comment that ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’  has attracted, I see from the caption on the second photo that her remains were excavated in 1901. Presumably she’s been re-examined recently in the light of new knowledge. There have been suggestions that other folk buried in Roman York were of African descent, too, although I don’t know whether they were around at the same time.  (Maybe they had some connection with the Emperor Severus, who came from North Africa and was based in York many decades before her.)

What I’d like to know is whether this is actually unusual. What you discover about a skeleton must to some extent depend on what you test it for – and what you test it for must depend on all sorts of factors, including how much time and money you have. So, do we have a unique lady from the fourth century or an especially observant and well-funded bunch of archaeologists from the twenty-first? If anyone knows, please get in touch. Meanwhile, one wonders how many other surprises are lying quietly unexamined in museum store-rooms…

Incidentally, they seem to have all sorts of interesting skeletons in York. Remember this article from 2005?

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4 comments

  1. I remember the Driffield Terrace skeles all too well, as my partner directed one of the excavations there. He is still working on it – as in getting it written up, and more will be heard about the dig in due course … Meanwhile, the assessment report is here: http://www.iadb.co.uk/driffield6/index.php


    • Thanks Sandra – that’s a fascinating report, and raises so many questions… why all men? Why such a restricted age group? And why DID they detach so many of the heads?

      What’s that Auden quotation about guessing being more fun than knowing?


      • Dear Ruth
        Way back on 28 April, you asked: What’s that Auden quotation about guessing being more fun than knowing?
        Knowledge may have its purposes,
        but guessing is always
        more fun than knowing.
        This is the fourth of the 23 stanzas of Archaeology, which Edward Mendelson dates to August 1973 and places last in his Selected Poems. Searching it out has turned up some more details that might interest you and your readers.
        Archaeology came with a letter to E.R. Dodds, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, written from Kirchstetten, Austria, on 31 August 1973. The poet was regrettably starting to feel his age: he was mentally alert, but easily fatigued, and on medication. But he had written on Dodds for the New York Review of Books and hoped the professor approved. Soon afterwards, on 28 September, Auden gave a poetry reading in Vienna. After which, he died in his sleep,
        Auden’s article, entitled Heresies, was of Dodds’s Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety. It had appeared in the newly established Review some 18 months previously – and is reprinted in Forewords and Afterwords, a 1963 selection of Auden’s literary criticism.

        This comment box seems not to like footnotes. But anyone who wants to check out my information could start with these:
        Edward Mendelson, W.H. Auden: Selected Poems, Faber and Faber (1979), pages 302-304.
        Humphrey Carpenter, W.H. Auden: a Biography, Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston (1981), pages 449-450.
        W.H. Auden, Heresies, The New York Review of Books, 17 February 1966; reprinted in Auden, Forewords and Afterwords (selected by Edward Mendelson), Faber and Faber (1973), pages 40-48.

        Best wishes
        David


      • Thanks for doing the detective work on this one, David. I’m sure we’ve got an Auden selection in the loft somewhere: I’ll have to do some overhead archaeology and see if it turns up.

        Very interesting to see that he wrote the poem so close to the end of his life. (It’s further evidence for my pet theory that we become more interested in history the closer we are to becoming part of it.)

        I believe the lines you quote are displayed at Vindolanda, up on Hadrian’s Wall. In the light of his famous poem about the Wall soldier with the cold in the nose, it would be nice to think that Auden would approve!



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