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Thursday 27 Nov 2014

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Skeleton of medieval African found in Ipswich sheds new light on Britain's ethnic history

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the 16th century there are virtually no records of Africans in England – until now.

A skeleton excavated from a burial ground in Ipswich in the Nineties, has been identified as that of an African man dating back to medieval times.

Could this discovery, made in the first programme of new BBC Two series History Cold Case, which begins on Thursday 6 May at 9pm, open new windows on our view of Britain's ethnic history?

Professor Sue Black OBE, and her team at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee, have used 21st-century forensic science techniques such as carbon dating, bone isotopic analysis, facial reconstruction and historical detective work to build a picture of the man's life – and death – giving him his face back for the first time in 800 years.

They discover that the man was born as a Muslim in 13th-century Tunisia; and taken back to England during the 9th Crusade, converting to Christianity before living in the UK for over 10 years.

As he succumbed to the pain of a spinal abscess in later life he was very possibly nursed to his death by a group of Friars – before a burial in the Friary itself.

The findings leave behind irrefutable proof of an African presence in medieval England.

Professor Jim Bolton, medieval historian and migration expert at the University of London, says of the findings:

"It is very unusual indeed. There is some written evidence of Africans in medieval England but to find skeletons; I have never come across it before.

"Between the fall of Roman Empire and the 15th/16th century, it is very rare to find Africans – very rare."

Professor Sue Black commented: "It is a privilege as a forensic anthropologist to be involved in such important archaeological findings. This project is just one example of why history and science are incredibly powerful allies."

This extraordinary story is the first in the new four-part series of History Cold Case.

Notes to Editors

History Cold Case is a Shine Television in association with Red Planet Pictures production for BBC Two.

The skeleton was excavated by Suffolk Council Archaeology.

The Dundee University team at the Centre of Anatomy and Human Identification are the leading team of forensic anthropologists in the UK:

Professor Sue Black OBE FRSE (Head of Department)
Dr Xanthe Mallett (Forensic Anthropologists)
Dr Caroline Wilkinson (Facial Reconstruction)
Dr Wolfram Meier-Augenstein (Bone Isotope Analysis).


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