Mystery lady who began tweeting from beyond the grave

As the results of a new project to make heritage more acccessible are revealed, Sarah Freeman asks can Twitter bring the dead back to life?

After spending years carefully researching the remains of a mysterious 1,600-year-old woman, when Dr Stephany Leach first saw a display dedicated to her story in the Yorkshire Museum she couldn’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment.

Housed in a small glass box, while the skull of the Ivory Bangle Lady was undoubtedly a highlight of the York collection, its significance was explained away in just a few brief paragraphs.

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“There are a lot of things we still don’t know about her, but what we do completely changed people’s perceptions of what Roman society was like in York,” says Dr Leach, whose use of state-of-the-art technology to reconstruct the woman’s face showed she was of North African origin. “People tend to think that Romans were white Europeans, but during that period, York was in fact much more multicultural than it is today.

“From analysis of her teeth and from research into the burial goods found in the stone coffin we know that she was someone of high status and while there are various pieces of the jigsaw missing – we don’t know, for example, why she was buried outside of the main cemetery or the cause of her death – her story gives a really fascinating and perhaps unexpected angle to the history of York.

“I just felt that instead of a traditional display, there was a better way of engaging visitors to the museum.”

An opportunity presented itself when Dr Leach, alongside a team from Imagemakers, which specialises in bringing the 
past to life, secured funding as part of the Heritage Sandbox scheme.

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Launched in an attempt to modernise the heritage sector, The Ivory Bangle Lady, first unearthed during an excavation in the city in 1901, was chosen alongside five other pilot projects to showcase what can be done with a little technology and a lot of imagination.

For the Ivory Bangle Lady, that meant turning the skeleton of a woman who died in the 4th-century AD into Twitter’s oldest user.

Displaying her entire remains, along with the grave goods, the team created a temporary trail around Yorkshire Museum, where visitors were encouraged to text or tweet a number of codewords, which triggered a series of video projections about her life and death.

“I was a little worried that some people might think tweeting the dead was a little disrespectful, but the response was really positive,” says Dr Leach. “There is always a balance to strike in museums between being accessible enough for children while not alienating adult visitors.

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“The Yorkshire Museum attracts everyone from retired couples to school parties and the one thing we were always conscious of was that the project should add to not interfere with their visit.

“When I see a skull, I see a face, I see the person, but I realise that’s just one of my odd quirks. Most people just see bones and sometimes it can be hard to see beyond that.”

It was Imagemakers’ Paul Davies who came up with the project’s “I tweet the dead’ tagline and he who was largely responsible for realising the museum’s interactive trail.

“The technology is important, but only as a way of drawing people in,” he says. “While they might have come thinking tweeting the dead as a novel thing to do we wanted them to leave thinking about the stories and questions the Ivory Bangle Lady raises.

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“Before I went to York I’d talked a lot to Stephany about the research, but when I held the skull in my hands everything became real. While that experience isn’t one museum visitors can replicate, the project was all about trying to get people to make connections with her life.”

The results of the Ivory Bangle Lady pilot, along with the six other projects from across Britain, are due to be unveiled at a Heritage Sandbox showcase in Bristol tomorrow and while the Ivory Bangle Lady hasn’t tweeted since this summer, the museum is now exploring ways to make the trail a permanent fixture.

“There were a few concerns that the trail could end up targeting a very narrow audience but that wasn’t the case at all,” says Natalie McCaul, assistant curator of archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum. “We would love to have it as part of the museum, but there is nothing worse than an interactive exhibition that doesn’t work, so at the moment we are just trying to see how much the technology would cost to allow the Ivory Bangle Lady to speak again from beyond the grave.”

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