Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Ivory Bangle Lady - My Story

Sometimes I miss Rome so much I think I might die. I loved growing up there. The life, the colour, the warmth, the sophistication.

My family had a large town house on Pear Street, up on the Quirinal, with views over Rome and the River Tiber. It was far enough from Rome to be quiet, but close enough for a day’s shopping. The sun always shone and the sky was always blue and the birds were always singing. I grew up in green inner gardens full of cool shade, splashing fountains and the sweet scent of roses, grape hyacinth, jasmine and lavender. Our house had its own bath complex with a mosaic of golden sea-nymphs on the bottom of the swimming pool. I used to dive down and pretend I was a nereid like them. On festival days I my two sisters and I would sometimes go to Rome: to the chariot races. (Our bishop says we should not attend, but pater says a day at the circus reminds us of our spiritual race to keep our eye on the goal and not to falter. Our bishop also says that women do not need baubles and jewellery, but pater says as long as we wear only glass and not precious gems…)

My name is Julia Tertia, but they call me Tertia. One of my illustrious ancestors on my mother’s side was Sextus Julius Africanus, a scholar from Alexandria who wrote books on our faith and served under the Emperor Septimius Severus. My father is from Lepcis Magna, that emperor’s home town in North Africa; I was also born there and spent the first few years of my life in Lepcis. It is a great city, but nothing compares to Rome!

Recently, a young man came to ask for my hand in marriage. My father is a good wise man, and he let me meet Gaius before he made the decision that we be married.

I could see my appearance pleased Gaius when I came into the fountain courtyard where he stood waiting. He stared at me with his mouth open and then clapped his hand to his heart as if Cupid’s arrow had pierced him there. His looks pleased me, too. He has laughing green eyes, quite striking against his olive skin. His hair is black and glossy and his eyelashes are longer than mine. He is a rich young man of the patrician class, climbing the ladder of honours. He is also a believer, though he secretly worships some of the old gods, too. He says I am the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and he is always buying me jewelry and fine silks. I shouldn’t accept such things, but I do love them so, and as long as he does not give me gold or jewels, my conscience is easy.

I only wish they hadn’t posted him to Britannia to do his military service. When I first heard we were going to live in Eburacum I imagined a city made of ivory, because ebur means ivory. But it’s a faded crumbling city with more hovels than brick buildings. The frescoes are peeling, the mosaics are missing tesserae and the sky seems always to be grey. And it’s cold and dark this winter.

We bought some ivory bracelets to remind me of home, and I have now bought some jet bracelets here in York. The lady I bought them from told me that the material is magical, and will protect me from illness and the evil eye. The black bracelets also make a nice contrast with the ivory ones. I keep all my jewellery in a box that my family gave me, even though they might not approve of keeping trinkets in it as it has a Christian inscription on it.

We went to the games last week but it was a sad affair with a few dogs chasing a frightened deer. I cried and cried. My only consolation is that soon we will be back home in sunny lively Rome and oh! I cannot wait.


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Since a flurry of press about the discovery of an Roman lady in York who may have come from North Africa, some Roman Mysteries fans have asked if she could be a descendent of Nubia, the African girl in my series of Roman Mysteries. I suppose it IS possible but this young woman lived in the fourth century, at least three hundred years after Nubia.

Recently, Dr Hella Eckardt and her team from the Diaspora Project at the University of Reading asked me to write a possible fictional scenario for who she was and how she came to be in York. Here's what I wrote about the woman they dubbed 'Ivory Bangle Lady'. It will be part of the schools pack when the Yorkshire Museum re-opens in August 2010!

I played historical detective and created the above scenario based on the forensic clues:

Her skull shape shows she was mixed race with definite African characteristics
Her bones showed she died young, aged around 19
Isotopes show she came from a hot place outside Britain
(possibly North Africa but certain parts of Spain and Italy are also possible)
Her diet matched that of the local population in York
She was buried in a stone sarcophagus, a mark of wealth
Her grave goods also indicate wealth and some might be clues
- bangle made of jet; jet a local material with ‘magical’ properties
- bangles made of ivory; and exotic material from tooth of elephant
- blue glass perfume flask from the Rhineland: again a mark of wealth
- blue glass bead bracelet: she liked blue?
- silver and bronze lockets
- two yellow glass ear-rings
- two marbled glass beads
- small round glass (!) mirror: she was concerned with her looks
- a bone plaque with the words SOROR AVE VIVAS IN DEO
('FAREWELL SISTER LIVE IN GOD')
indicating she was perhaps a Christian and almost certainly literate


Whoever Ivory Bangle Lady really was, she did not live long. She died around the age of 19 and was buried in York. The brilliant painting above is a re-imagining of her funeral with some of the other people from different parts of the Empire found in York and also some of the lovely grave goods buried with her.

For more information about this fascinating project, go to Diaspora Project at the University of Reading. Hella and her team have also found bones of two individuals they call 'Cold Isotope Guy' and 'Hot Isotope Guy'. (See if you can spot them in the picture above!)
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1 comment:

  1. Nephele1:24 AM

    This was great fun to read, Caroline! Your highly descriptive prose is a delight, and you did a great job bringing The Ivory Bangle Lady to life!

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