It’s a fairly common misconception that black people didn’t really live in Britain until the mid-1900s, but that couldn’t be more wrong. Not only did Roman and Tudor Britain include people with African heritage, there is mounting evidence to show that Anglo-Saxon, Viking and medieval Britain did too, and that people from Africa are likely to have been living here since the Bronze Age, and have been contributing to the wealth of British culture and ancestry for nearly 3,000 years.
By the medieval period, black people were already being depicted in important illustrated manuscripts, like the Domesday Abbreviato. But it’s not just historical sources that provide us with evidence.
Excavations at the cemetery of a medieval monastery in Ipswich revealed nine skeletons which seem to have come from sub-Saharan Africa, who lived around the same time that the Domesday Abbreviato was compiled. One of them, known as the Ipswich Man, was examined by the BBC History Cold Case team. Carbon dating, bone analysis and DNA tests revealed that he was born sometime between 1190 and 1300 in North Africa and had lived in Britain or an equally cold, damp climate for at least the last ten years of his life.
Further north, there’s evidence too. Isotopic analysis is a technique that can reveal where someone spent their childhood, by looking at the chemical signatures left in their dental enamel. Isotopic evidence from the cemetery of the medieval priory at Whithorn, Scotland also suggests that at least one individual who lived and died in the late twelfth to thirteenth century AD may have grown up in North Africa.
Based on the examination of skeletal remains, there are at least three female burials from Viking Age Britain which osteologists have so far suggested have African ancestry. One of the burials was a 1,000 year old female skeleton found in the River Coln at Fairford, Gloucestershire. She has been described as a woman aged 18-24, from Sub-Saharan Africa, with radiocarbon dating suggesting that she probably died between AD 896-1025.
We can never know for certain why or how these three women came to Britain, but there are multiple historical sources, including the writings of Andalusi chroniclers, as well as the famous Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, in which the Vikings are said to have raided the north coast of Africa and Mauritania and brought captives (including royals) back to Ireland where remained ‘for a long time’. With that in mind, it’s possible that Viking slavery brought North African people to Britain too.
With the Roman Empire being so intrinsically linked to North Africa and the Mediterranean, many of you will find it completely unsurprising that Roman Britain included Roman Africans, but what about later periods, after the Romans had retreated?
Although isotopic evidence of people arriving from Africa certainly peaks in the Roman period, we know that their descendants would continue to live here, and there is also plenty of documentary and archaeological evidence of significant contact with North Africa and the Byzantine Empire in post-Roman Britain, the Middle Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon Britain.
Istopic analysis of teeth can reveal where someone grew up. In fact, the great chronicler Bede (Historia Ecclesiastica, IV.1) writes about a ‘man of African race’ called Hadrian who arrived in AD 668. He became an incredibly influential abbott, and was pivotal in shaping England’s church structures, and may have even introduced the study of Greek to the Anglo-Saxons.
Perhaps even more strikingly however, are the results from the isotopic analysis done on the pre-Viking burial ground at Bamburgh – the ‘royal city’ of the Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian kingdom of Bernicia, just a stone’s throw from our own excavation on Lindisfarne. Of the 78 individuals surveyed, 7 (9%) gave results consistent with a childhood spent in North Africa or southern Iberia, perhaps more likely the former given that three of them had isotopic values only encountered in North Africa or further afield.
Isotopic evidence from large Roman-age cemeteries at York, Gloucester and Lankhills Winchester again shows that significant numbers of people buried here – both men and women – had spent their early years in North Africa, and some are even buried with artefacts from North Africa.
While isotopic analysis has helped archaeologists identify people who moved to Britain from Africa as adults, osteologists have also been able to identify large numbers of people with African ancestry who were born in Roman Britain. For example, one of the skeletons from York, known as the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’, was identified as likely to have African ancestry based on her osteological features, while isotopic analysis of her remains shows that she was born in Roman Britain. She was found buried with several pieces of jet and elephant ivory jewellery, all suggesting that she was a wealthy member of Romano-British society. In fact, osteological analysis suggests that more than 10% of individuals at the York cemeteries were of African descent, and that yet more (up to 58%) may have had mixed ancestry.
But that’s not all; there’s plenty of documentary evidence too. The first written record of an African community in Britain comes from an altarpiece which dates back to around AD 250. It tells us that at a fort on Hadrian’s wall at Burgh by Sands, known to Romans as Aballava, was home to the commander of the ‘Aurelian Moors’, and a contingent of troops from Mauretania. It seems that these soldiers settled in the area and had familes, because the unit’s name appears again about 100 years later in the Notitia Dignitatum. By this time, the unit must have been recruiting locally, particularly from the Romano-British sons (and sons-of-sons) of serving soldiers married to local women.
Of course, there’s also the small matter of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (r. AD 193-211) who was born in modern-day Libya, died in York. With the exception of the rule of Marcus Opellius Macrinus (AD 217–218), Severus’s descendants remained in power until AD 235.
Isotopic analysis of teeth at a Late Bronze Age to Middle Iron Age cemetery on the Isle of Thanet, Kent, revealed the presence of at least one individual dating back to 800-900 BC (Late Bronze Age) whose results are consistent with having been brought up in Egypt’s Nile Delta. Ontop of that, results from the rest of the cemetery more generally indiacted that around 20% of those interred here had grown up in North Africa and/or southernmost Iberia.
As Dr Caitlin Green reminds us, there is plenty of archaeological evidence of Bronze Age trading along the Atlantic coast between the Mediterranean, Iberia, Britain and Scandinavia, as well as linguistic, numismatic and archaeological evidence for Mediterranean and Punic contact with Britain during the Iron Age, all of which could help us understand the potential reasons why people from Africa seem to have settled in Britain as much as 3,000 years ago.
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