Viking grave goods & high-status immigrants

Tahereh Safavi

Tahereh Safavi

I'm half-Iranian, half-Chinese, all improv kid. I love making history engaging to a non-academic audience. I'm a contributing expert for Fact In Fantasy (PRH '22) and editor-in-chief at the Ubergroup.

European Diversity

Hello, I’m Tahereh, and I’m honoured to be Eleanor’s guest this week. I write about mediaeval history with brown people. I’m currently working on a book/tv series, Berserker Queen, and I’m a contributing expert for Putting the Fact in Fantasy: Expert Advice to Bring Authenticity to Your Fantasy Writing, which came out last week. While researching the trade connections between Europe, Asia, and Africa, I learned there were a lot more people of colour in Europe than I’d ever imagined.

Quick Facts

African Emperors

Septimus Severus was born at Leptis Magna, one of the leading cities of Roman Africa, in what is now Libya. He is the first Roman emperor to have been born in the provinces to a family of non-Italian origin. He’s shown here in the Severan Tondo with his Syrian wife and their two children.

Severus was Punic, the Semetic people associated with the destroyed city of Carthage. Semites include many groups from the ancient Levant, such as Akkadians, Phonecians, Jews, and Arabs. Macrinus was Amazigh, the nomadic people group of the Sahara desert, sometimes still known by the exonym ‘Berber.’  ‘Berber’ is a derogatory term deriving from the Roman word ‘Barbaros’ or ‘barbarian.’ The endonym they use for themselves is ‘Amazigh,’ for a singular person like Macrinus, and Imazighen in plural.

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s wall in northern England was more porous and focused on trade than many people assume, and there were a broad variety of people present from throughout the Roman world. Graffiti along the wall–including no less than fifty-seven drawings of penises–gives a very human and personal insight to their minds and senses of humour.

The Historia Augusta mentions a specific incident between Septimus Severus and an Aethiopian soldier. Known in his cohort as a famous prankster, he trolled the Emperor by presenting him with a garland of cyprus boughs: an omen of death. This unsettled Severus enough to make it into the written record.

Black Noblewoman of York

The Ivory Bangle Lady was found buried in a stone sarcophagus with luxury items like a mirror, a blue glass perfume jar, and–most poignantly–a stunning set of contrasting black and white bangles made of Yorkshire jet and African elephant ivory. Chemical elements in the ivory bangle lady’s teeth show she was brought up in a warm, coastal climate, and her skull shape suggests mixed ancestry, including Black features. A decorative mount inscribed 'Hail Sister, May You Live in God' implies she may have been a very early Christian. Her remains show no sign of a tough or strenuous lifestyle, confirming she was likely wealthy.

The possibility of high-status non-white people in 4th century Britain has been met with hostility, and archaeologists studying her “struggle to strike a balance between speaking with authority and not wishing to "dictate" the "truth" about the past – the latter linked with imperialism and other repressive power structures.”

Multicultural Vikings

In deepest irony for those who would like to imagine Vikings to symbolize an insular white supremacist past, the basic idea of ‘being good sailors’ meant they travelled. ‘Viking’ is a profession–a raider or a pirate–not an ethnicity. They were defined by their mobility and did not include the bulk of the Scandinavian population back home.

Viking graves are littered with Muslim and even Buddhist grave goods. Intermarriage was frequent, if not always consensual: vikings engaged heavily in the slave trade, and often sought women in particular. Selective female infanticide and polygyny among the powerful may have led to a shortage of women and even the viking age itself: excess bachelors fought among themselves for narrow prospects, and eventually burst out of Scandinavia in search of wives elsewhere.


📗 If you found this interesting and would like more about black vikings and warrior princesses, subscribe at to twodrunkhistorynerds at the website and  youtube channel.

💚 If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of research into obscure history and science.

🤎 Do you have a favorite anecdote about people of color in European history? Please reach out — I'd love to hear about it, either on Twitter or in a comment where other readers can see.

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