When we think about grave goods of the Anglo-Saxon period, it is usually the metalwork that grabs the most attention. This is hardly surprising given the evident mastery of the craft possessed by the Anglo-Saxons. Whether it is the breathtaking skill shown in the goldwork from the Staffordshire Hoard (see CA 290, 297, and 349), or more everyday objects of copper alloy such as brooches, it is clear that metalwork formed a key component of people’s lives and identities. However, other materials were also highly prized and had to be traded over hundreds of miles before reaching England.
Ivory was first identified in early cemeteries by 19th-century antiquarians and, when found, is always in the form of plain rings in female burials. It is generally accepted that these were used to form a ridged frame from which a cloth bag could be hung. They are usually found at the skeleton’s hip, indicating they had been connected to a belt. Typically, only 1-5% of female burials in a cemetery are buried with an ivory bag-ring, but at Scremby we found seven, representing more than 20% of the female graves excavated. At first glance, the rings are rather unprepossessing – they are simple and undecorated, made from plain transverse cuts through a large tusk – so, rather than their elaborate form, it seems it was their precious material made them so valuable to their owners.
Where the ivory originated from has been subject to some debate. In the last century, there was much speculation that ancient mammoths could have been the source of the tusks. Well-preserved mammoth ivory is frequently encountered in sub-Arctic regions and, even today, supplies the illegal market. It was thought that established trade routes that provided the Anglo-Saxons with Baltic amber and other goods such as furs might also have carried ivory. More recently, though, radiocarbon dating of ivory rings from several sites, including Scremby, has indicated that they were contemporary with the burials in which they were found, meaning that their materials came from animals alive long after the mammoth had become extinct. Given the size of the tusks required to make a bag-ring, that leaves only one other candidate: the elephant.
We were interested in where this ivory might have originated and what this tells us about wider trade networks in the early Anglo-Saxon period. Two species were in the frame – the African and Asian elephant – but it is virtually impossible to tell their tusks apart visually, especially when worked into objects. It is known that the Romans used ivory from both Asian and African sources, with Egypt acting as a distribution point for the whole empire. However, some scholars have suggested that, with the collapse of the Western Empire, trade routes carrying African ivory to the north had ceased to operate. The Asian origin was seemingly corroborated by Isidore of Seville, who wrote in the 7th century that the Romans had exhausted African herds. However, the picture is more complex. Archaeological excavations at Aksum in modern-day Eritrea, East Africa, revealed that workshops processing ivory for the European market from at least the 3rd century were still in operation in the 7th century, around a century after the Scremby rings were buried. So, where did the ivory excavated in England originate? Using advanced scientific methods, we aimed to find out.
Peptide mass fingerprinting for species identification (more commonly known as ZooMS) is used to analyse the sequence of peptides in collagen in order to identify the species of animal present. This technique was undertaken on a sample of ivory from Scremby, revealing that the ivory came from an African elephant and not other proboscideans. We also wanted to see if we could identify where in Africa the elephant in question might have lived. To do this, we used strontium isotope analysis, which indicates the type and age of the bedrock underlying the area where the animal sourced its food and water at the time its tusks were formed. The results gave a clear indication that the elephant originated from an area of young, volcanic rocks such as those in the East African Rift Valley, which runs through Kenya and Ethiopia.
The evidence, therefore, suggests that the Scremby bag-rings were made from elephant ivory sourced in Africa, potentially in Ethiopia or Kenya, at some point during the 5th or 6th century AD. This points to the possibility that ivory in early Anglo-Saxon England made its way via a complex network of trade and communication routes originating with the Kingdom of Aksum. Proposed plans to expand our sample and methods of analysis will, we hope, provide further insight into these trade mechanisms and connections between the West and the East.
The full results have just been published as an open-access report: K A Hemer, H Willmott, J Evans, and M E Buckley, ‘Ivory from early Anglo-Saxon burials in Lincolnshire – a biomolecular study’, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 49 (2023): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2023.103943.