LONDON – A 13th-century skeleton unearthed on the grounds of a friary may be the earliest physical evidence that Africans lived in England in medieval times, a team of researchers said Sunday.
Forensics experts at the University of Dundee Scotland say the bones most likely belonged to a man from modern-day Tunisia who spent about a decade living in England before he died.
“I believe that this is the first physical evidence of Africans in medieval England,” said Jim Bolton, a historian at Queen Mary, University of London who wasn’t involved in the discovery.
The man – who appears to have died of a spinal abscess – was identified as African by studying his skeleton and the historical record of the friary where he was buried.
Researchers were able to pin the man to Tunisia using isotope analysis, a technique which looks at the mix of elements that build up in a person’s teeth, bones or other tissues. Since people from different areas tend to accumulate such elements in different ways, analysis of their remains can sometimes pinpoint where they grew up, where they lived or even their diet.
It’s not clear how the man would have made his way from Tunisia to Ipswich, the southeast England town where his skeleton was unearthed in the 1990s. The BBC’s “History Cold Case” program, which is publicizing the finding, suggested he may have been brought back during the Crusades.
His burial on consecrated ground suggests he was a respected member of society.
“He would have had to been of some note to be buried in the friary,” said Xanthe Mallett, an expert at the Center for Anatomy and Human Identification in Dundee.