Bags prized as status symbols in Anglo-Saxon England were made using ivory imported from East Africa, according to a study that highlights the extent of post-Roman trade routes.
The research looks at ivory “bag rings”, which have been found in over 70 cemeteries across southern, central, and eastern England dating from the late 5th to 7th centuries. They are generally found in the graves of women buried with various other objects such as brooches and beads.
Archaeologists believe the rings, around 10-15cm in diameter, formed the openings for bags that hung at the waist. Reconstructions suggest that a fabric bag was attached to each ring in such a way that the ivory was clearly visible. Given the material’s rarity in post-Roman Britain, researchers say the bags may have been carried not only for their utility but as a conspicuous display of wealth.
The question that has vexed archaeologists is where the ivory of the rings originated. Some scholars have suggested that it could not have come from elephants, as trade routes that previously brought African and Asian elephant ivory to Northern Europe must have been disrupted by the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century.
This hypothesis led to speculation that the rings were made from ivory originating closer to home. Dr Katie Hemer, lead author of the new study in the Journal of Archaeological Science, said: “There has been a lot of debate around this ivory. Is it ancient? Is it mammoth? Is it Arctic walrus or some other known species? There has been speculation, but nobody had really done any scientific analysis on this material.”
The discovery of several women’s graves containing bag rings in recent excavations of a late-5th to mid-6th-century cemetery at Scremby in Lincolnshire, changed all that.
Hemer, a bioarchaeologist at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, said: “I specialise in the study of human remains and a lot of my work looks at movements and migrations of people. I had a conversation with my colleague Dr Hugh Willmott, of the University of Sheffield, who led the excavations at Scremby, and said: ‘Ivory is essentially dentine — the same type of material I’m used to working on. Wouldn’t it be really cool if we could work out where this stuff was coming from using the types of analyses I normally do on human teeth?’ So that’s how it came about.”
Hemer, Willmott and their co-authors Professor Jane Evans and Dr Michael Buckley carried out a series of tests on the bag rings recovered at Scremby. Their initial radiocarbon dating of one of the rings indicated that the ivory dated from 428–598AD — roughly contemporary with the cemetery. The team were also able to infer from the radiocarbon results that these rings came from an extant elephant species rather than ancient mammoth ivory. Subsequent analysis of bone collagen on ivory from another of the rings showed that it came from an African elephant, specifically.
Finally, strontium analysis of four bag rings indicated that the elephants had roamed in a part of Africa dominated by young volcanic rocks, such as the East African Rift Valley in Kenya and Ethiopia. This analysis — commonly applied to human remains — can reveal where animals lived based on the strontium in the local bedrock that ends up in their food and water, and, ultimately, in their tissues.
Hemer said: “It was the strontium analysis that was a bit of a shot in the dark, because we weren’t sure whether contamination would be a big issue or not. It turned out it wasn’t — the value we got wasn’t a value you could find within the geology of the British Isles. After my colleague Professor Jane Evans did that work, the subject of her email to the team was ‘Gobsmacking results!'”
Significantly, the findings could be consistent with the ivory originating in the Kingdom of Aksum, centred on today’s Ethiopia — over 3,000 miles from Lincolnshire as the crow flies. Aksum was a major manufacturer and distributor of ivory between the 3rd and 7th centuries, supplying Persian, Roman and, later, Byzantine markets among others. The 3rd-century Persian religious leader Mani called Aksum one of the “four great kingdoms on Earth”, alongside Persia, Rome and China.
The researchers suggest that the rings probably arrived in Britain ready-made. There is no evidence for ivory working in early Anglo-Saxon settlements. On the other hand, a waste piece of ivory from which a disc or ring of similar size to the Scremby rings was cut has been excavated at Aksum city. The archaeology in East Africa points to the use there of sophisticated lathe-turning techniques to remove perfect roundels.
Hemer said the new evidence helped to challenge outdated ideas about post-Roman Britain. “I don’t buy into this idea of Britain being this dark and dingy backwater in the early medieval period. There’s too much evidence of long-distance contacts. The end of the Roman Empire happened, but that didn’t mean people forgot everything and stopped moving around.”
The history of Britain during the centuries following the collapse of Roman authority around 410AD remains contested. The traditional idea of a massive Anglo-Saxon “invasion” is no longer widely accepted. However, recent studies indicate that there was significant migration from today’s Northern Germany and adjacent regions into eastern Britain from the 5th century, and subsequent mixing of people and cultures.
Archaeology shows that goods from the eastern Roman, or Byzantine, empire were imported into western Britain for generations after 410. In eastern Britain, the artefacts in the famous 7th-century ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk include silver bowls from the Eastern Roman Empire and objects set with garnets that may have originated as far afield as India or Sri Lanka.
It wasn’t only goods that travelled to Britain over huge distances. There is evidence for the movement of people too. A study last year showed that a 10 or 11-year-old girl buried in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Updown, near Eastry in Kent had recent ancestry from West Africa. And, in an example from recorded history, the North African cleric St Hadrian of Canterbury arrived in England in the 660s.
As for the specific route by which the ivory bag rings reached Britain, Hemer said: “I couldn’t say what exactly the trade mechanisms were. That’s the next step to think about — how was this material coming in, what were the factors that enabled the trade and who were the players that facilitated it? Those are the big questions we still need to answer.
“We’ve focused on one small cemetery site in Lincolnshire for this pilot study. But if it opens up the opportunity to do more global research and to work on material in Africa with researchers in Africa, or whose work is focused on Africa, I think there would be real benefits. It may also provide an opportunity to engage new audiences in Britain and Northern Europe with a global perspective on our past.”
The team said the apparent decline of the occurrence of bag rings in Britain in the 7th century may be linked to the Islamic conquests, which impacted on trade routes out of Africa. Around the same time, conversions to Christianity in Britain put an end to burials with such elaborate grave goods.