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  • African in Tenth-Century Britain September 22, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    skull in river

    ***Thanks to Borky for this lovely piece***

    People and perhaps particularly kids are forever pulling things out of rivers. So the fact that, in July of this year, a couple of thirteen-year-olds dragged some human bones out of the Coln river in Gloucestershire is hardly a world-stopper.  Nor it is suprising that these bones turned out to be, not a recent murder victim as one of the teen’s mother’s feared – but over a thousand years old, the date range given was 896AD to 1025AD. However, what is worth a few gasps is the alleged origin of these bones. The bones pulled out the river belong to a Sub-Saharan African woman. Now in tenth-century Gloucestershire someone from Worcestershire or Ireland would have been pretty exotic. But what about an individual from the Gold Coast…?  Dark Age Britain was a land where skin colour ranged from the alabaster white of some Gaels to the grey white of the southern Welsh. African populations have albinos that teach them white people or ‘ghosts’ exist. But what would a tenth-century Mercian have made of a black African? Terror, fascination…

    Explanations. Just a few wild thoughts here. When we think ‘Sub-Saharan African’ we typically think ‘slave’ and in this case that reflex thought might be right. Is there any other reason that a Sub-Saharan African would have found themselves this far from home? Unless we are talking about an Ethiopian it is practically impossible that we are talking about a fellow-Christian on pilgrimage at the ends of the world. If this had been a man we could have perhaps spun a tale about mercenaries. But a black African woman in tenth-century England…  Hollywood might give her a sword and some nunchakers but in the real world that was never going to happen. Beach would bet a shiny sovereign that slavery did feature somewhere in her story. She could have been sold up through established routes in the Arab Mediterranean to Spain and from there into Christian Europe. Alternatively she could have been Viking plunder from an Arab settlement in Northern Africa or Spain. In fact, if ‘slave’ features in her probably dreadful tale then Spain very probably made its appearance too. Spain for generations had been the conduit by which Mediterranean Christian learning had reached Britain and also more curious knowledge from the Arab and even the Egyptian world.

    Of course, many other gaps could be filled in here if the dating was sharper and if the claim that she was, indeed, Sub-Saharan African was properly substantiated.  Has isotope analysis been carried out? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com  Probably not or we would have an even closer location.

    23 Sept 2013: First of all, Judith W. writes in with this warning from a previous Sub-Saharan African news story. I have to say that I was worried by the lack of science in his source articles, something reflected in my last paragraph. The Count is also suspicious. The source articles are not very detailed, but, to answer, the Count’s question, there were allegedly other bones. However, his point that the bottom of a river is a strange place to find them is very well made! ‘What a curious post about the very, very long-dead African woman found in a river near Colchester! One thing immediately sprang to my mind. The photo you display shows a skull in remarkably good condition at the bottom of a shallow river. How long could human bones lie in such a place without disintegrating? The surrounding stones have been worn smooth, and they’re a lot harder than bone! Unless the skeleton recently fell into the water as a result of riverbank erosion, I would think that it may have been deliberately dumped there much less than 1,000 years ago, probably because somebody found a deceased relative’s human bone collection creepy (in Victorian times, such things were common enough to be mentioned in The Hound of the Baskervilles with the implication that it’s a weird but not utterly bizarre hobby), and couldn’t think of a legitimate way to get rid of it. Suppose the dustmen notice that your bin is full of skulls! Which they probably will. I know I would. You don’t mention how much of the skeleton was present – was it the whole body, or just the skull? If the latter, the idea of a clandestinely dumped skull collection becomes much more probable. Have any other ridiculously old and totally out-of-place human remains, African or otherwise, ever turned up in the same area?’ Tacitus from Detritus also begins with concerns about the science (as I read the email I had an increasingly bad feeling about this story): How exactly was this 10th century African determined to be such?  The usual measuring of available parts?  I guess if you have a sufficiency of same you can get a bit above the phrenology level of science. I append two photos of Roman era “heads” from Northern England [keeping these for another day!].  The Binchester specimen came up this year and – again with the measurements – has been viewed as depicting an African.  The Benwell head is not felt to be as solid an ID but is included as potentially the work of the same sculptor. Now, Africans in Roman Britain strikes nobody as remarkable.  But could their putative descendants still have skeletal metrics suggesting their origins five centuries later?  Sadly this line of reasoning tiptoes towards the unsavory destination of “one drop of black/Jewish/etc” blood from humanity’s less laudable moments.’ Thanks to Judith, the Count and Tacitus!

    1 Oct 2013: Sub-Saharan Africa: Gloucester County Council’s Archaeology section kindly took the time to reply to an email: ‘I am afraid we don’t know anything further about the bones or the tests. We only had a very limited input into the find and have not been kept informed about any of the details.’ Sounds like this might be a story that withers on the vine?

    7 Oct 2013: Allan writes: Just read your post on the poorly attributed bones from the Calne thought to be African, and a couple of thoughts of my own occurred. The first is in relation to slavery – if you were looking for slaves in England around 1086 (and presumably for a while before and afterwards, although the evidence is minimal) then the Cotswold estates of the local monasteries and Worcester Cathedral were about the best place to go, at least according to Domesday Book. I believe the growth of Bristol earlier in the century has also been linked to the Irish Sea slave trade. But it is not clear that these slaves were from exotic climes in the main, as opposed to Ireland and Britain. And it is not clear these servii in the Cotswolds were not just the least free class of peasants anyway, rather than foreigners being used to work the land. So whilst the bones are from a good area for slaves, Africa would be an unexpected origin for a slave at the time. And since no proper analysis of the bones other than presumably carbon dating seems to have been done, I would have a horrible suspicion that the attribution to sub-Saharah Africa is due to physical anthropology, probably by police experts looking to help with a possible identification (I believe the police still use this technique to try and identify the appearance of skeletal remains, for all its obvious flaws – and to be fair, it is better than nothing). Which means what is missing from the story is the percentage chance (based on modern samples) of the remains being African. Or she may just have been an African tourist – people did move around throughout history after all.’ Thanks Allan!