LONDON – LONDON (AP) — 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.
"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.
"Finding a skeleton like this is of major interest," he said.
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.
"It's not just the skin tone, it's a question of bone structure," said Xanthe Mallett, an expert at the Center for Anatomy and Human Identification in Dundee. She said the size of the nasal bone or the shape of the orbits differed depending on whether skeletons were European or African.
"You can have an idea of where somebody is from by looking at their skeletal features," she said.
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.
"Each area has a different isotopic signature," she said.
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 that he may have been brought back during the Crusades, although Mallett and Bolton both hypothesized he could have conceivably come through Spain, parts of which were then under Muslim rule.
His burial on consecrated ground suggests that not only must he have converted to Christianity, he may have gone on to become a respected member of society.
"He would have had to been of some note to be buried in the friary," Mallett said.
Bolton said it was extremely difficult to find evidence of any Africans in England between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Age of Exploration. He added that the find illustrated that there was still a lot to learn about how often or widely people traveled — either within England, Europe, or the wider world — during that period.
"We don't know much about the migration of ordinary people," he said.