Ivory rings in Anglo-Saxon burials sourced to African elephants

The 4-to-6-inch-wide ivory rings seem to have made a roughly 4,000-mile trip from African ivory works to end up at English burial sites.
John Loeffler

An elite class of ancient Anglo-Saxon women was buried with hundreds of ivory rings, and now we know that the rings were originally sourced to African elephants about 4,000 miles away.

In a new study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, researchers were able to use biomolecular analysis to trace the origin of hundreds of ivory bag rings found at dozens of ancient burial sites of Anglo-Saxon women. Long thought to be the ivory from mammoth or walrus specimens, the new research shows that the ivory, in fact, came from Africa around the fifth or sixth century CE.

"Through a multi-methodological approach, we have established that the ivory used for the Scremby bag rings came from elephants living in an area of young volcanic rocks in Africa at some point during the 5th and 6th centuries AD," the researchers write. "This preliminary evidence allows us to consider the networks and socio-economic factors that facilitated the distribution of ivory from Africa to the British Isles at this time."

The ivory rings were found in the graves of women as part of the assortment of grave goods left in the grave with their bodies. The rings are believed to have been part of bags that were hung from the women's hips.

"Since most rings have been recovered near the hip, it is thought that the bags were suspended from the waist alongside other objects such as iron knives, pairs of copper alloy girdle hangers, and iron ‘latch lifters’," the authors write.

The new findings shed light on the extensive trade network in the early Middle Ages after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

"It's really a long way," Hugh Willmott, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. and a co-author on the study, told Live Science. "It's crossing the Mediterranean world, and then the Alps, and then probably going via the Rhineland… so it's crossing multiple cultures."

The rings have puzzled archaeologists for more than a hundred years, as the 4-to-6-inch-wide rings aren't likely to have been part of any known ivory works in the region, and hundreds of them have been found in English Anglo-Saxon burial sites over a hundred-year span from the 600s to 700s, showing their sustained popularity among the Ango-Saxon elite.

North Africa and a large part of Great Britain were both part of the Roman Empire for centuries, so it would make sense that there would be some residual trade ties even after the fall of Rome. Why the trade appeared to end in the 700s isn't known.

"This study may add to the growing body of evidence suggesting that trading networks of the fifth- to seventh-centuries were far more extensive and complex than often previously supposed," Ken Dark, an archaeologist at King's College London who was not involved in the study, said. 

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