Tuesday 22 December 2015

The monstrous landscape of medieval Lincolnshire

The following brief post lists a number of field and other local minor names from Lindsey that make reference to folkloric and monstrous creatures inhabiting northern Lincolnshire, based on the collection made by I. M. Bowers in 1940 for her Place-Names of Lindsey (PhD thesis, University of Leeds). The majority of these names derive from medieval and early modern sources and suggest the existence of local folklore and tales, long since lost, focused on the pits, mires, fields, pools and mounds of the pre-Modern Lincolnshire landscape.

Theodor Kittelsen's 1904 drawing of a nøkk, the Norwegian equivalent of the English nicor, mentioned below (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Old Norse þurs (thurs)/Old English þyrs (thyrs)—a giant, a monster/ogre/demon

A word indicating a giant or similar monster with a dangerous or destructive nature; most famously found in the Old Norse compound hrímþursar, the 'frost giants', and as a description of Grendel in line 426 of the Old English poem Beowulf. The names imply a number of features thought to be either inhabited by—or made by—such creatures in the medieval/early modern Lincolnshire landscape; note, the dates given below indicate the year in which the name is first documented.
  • Thurspit, Alvingham (1579)—'giant-pit' or similar, cf. the Thyrspittes recorded in Foston, Kesteven (S. Lincolnshire) in 1280–90.
  • Thrusmyre, Edlington (1579)—a mire, Old Norse myrr, inhabited by a thurs.
  • Thruswelker, Selby in Stallingborough (1200s)—literally 'ogre-spring-marsh' or similar, the final element being Old Norse kiarr, 'marsh, wetland'.
  • Thursedale, Hemingby (1577)—the second element is either Old Norse dalr, 'valley', or deil(l), 'portion, share, part'.

J. R. Skelton's 1908 illustration of Grendel, who is described as a þyrs/thyrs in Beowulf (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Old English nicor—a water-monster

A word for a water-monster or water-goblin. As above, this term occurs in Beowulf, notably in lines 422 and 575, where Beowulf relates how he has fought nicors. Both it and its continental cognates—such as the Old Icelandic nykr—appear to have been applicable to a wide range of 'water-monsters', including sirens, water-mermaids, hippopotamuses, half-human creatures and water-wyrms!
  • Nikerpole, Nykarpole, Nychar-pool, Nicarpool, Lincoln (1296–8)—the pool inhabited by a nicor; the pool in question lay at the junction of Sincil Dyke and the Great Gowt. Compare Nicker Pool, Wimboldsley (Cheshire), first recorded in 1309, and Nicker's Well, Church Holme (Cheshire), first recorded in 1840.

Stukeley's early eighteenth-century map of Lincoln; the Nicarpool is at the bottom of the image, where the Great Gowt met the Sincil Dyke.

Middle English hob(be)—a mischievous spirit/hobgoblin

A word for a mischievous spirit or goblin; a hob in Northern and Midland English folklore was a rough, hairy, creature of the 'brownie' type, whose work could bring prosperity to farms but who could become mischievous or dangerous if annoyed. Household variants might be given new clothes to get them to leave forever, although other hobs lived outside in caves or holes.
  • Hoblurke, East Halton (1200s)—self-explanatory; place where a hob lurks/lies hidden, perhaps particularly for an evil purpose.
  • HobbeheadlandHobheadland, Halton Holegate (1601)—the headland, or 'place where the plough turns', where there is a hob.
  • Hob Lane Yate/Gate, Scotter (1567)—hob + lane + Middle English gate/ȝate, 'a gate'.
  • Hobbecroft, Theddlethorpe (1200s)—croft, 'small enclosure', with a hob in it.
  • Hobcroftheade, Yarborough (1601)—as above + head, 'head, top', cf. Hobbeheadland.
  • Hobhole Drain, the East Fen (1805)—name of an artificial drain made in 1805, running N–S across the East Fen; presumably references a pre-existing Hobhole, which is self-explanatory.

Dragons, pixies, ghosts & other creatures

Other local minor names potentially make reference to dragons, pixies, ghosts, shucks and warlocks.
  • Drake Acers, Messingham (1577)—Middle English drake, 'dragon, huge serpent', from Old English draca, plus acre, 'field'.
  • Dragons Hole, Corringham (1852)—self-explanatory.
  • PixsieacrePixsie Acre, Newton-next-Toft (1601)—the field inhabited by a pixie.
  • GasthehoweGastehowe, Ashby Puerorum (1200s)—Middle English gast/Old English gāst, 'ghost, dead-spirit', plus ME howe from Old Norse haugr, 'burial mound', so the burial mound haunted by a gast; note, the same parish also contained a place called dedmansgrave in the thirteenth century.
  • Shucdale, Haxey (1655)—Probably contains Middle English Shucke, 'demon, devil, evil spirit', from Old English scucca, plus either Middle English dale, 'valley', or deil(l), 'portion, share, part', referencing the area frequented by this creature.
  • Wallow Farm, Wharloe, Warlowe Close, Salmonby (1577)—Although late, the name appears to contain Middle English warlowe, from Old English wǣrloga, 'traitor, oath-breaker, liar, devil'; the Modern English descendant of this word is 'warlock'.
  • Warlocke Meare, Conisholme (1601)—as above plus mere, 'pool'. 

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2015, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Some interesting early maps of Lincolnshire

This post is primarily intended to share images of some of the interesting early maps of Lincolnshire that still exist, dating from the medieval era through until the early seventeenth century. Details of each map and a brief discussion of the principal points of interest—including the curious region-name 'Ageland' that appears in eastern Lincolnshire on many of them—are provided in the captions to the following image gallery, which I aim to add to over time.

Al-Idrīsī's mid-twelfth-century Arabic map of England, from a late thirteenth-/early fourteenth-century copy in BnF Arabe 2221 f.338v-339r. The map is orientated with south at the top and the east coast on the left; Lincoln is the central inland city depicted correctly as being located on both sides of the River Witham, which runs left-right from the sea on the left (east), with Boston being the town on the top side of the river nearer to the sea; the town below/north of the mouth of the Witham on the sea coast is Grimsby and the shoreline that curves rightwards/north-westwards from Grimsby is actually the south bank of the Humber and the River Ouse, with York being the city on the centre-bottom of the map (the oddly shaped  peninsula after this to the right/north-west is meant to be Scotland). For more on this map, see my note 'Al-Idrisi's twelfth-century map and description of eastern England' , which offers a sixteenth-century copy and Konrad Miller's redrawn and transliterated version of al-Idrīsī's map.(Image: BnF).

Map of Lincolnshire, extracted from the map of England by Matthew Paris, c. 1250. Norfolk is at the bottom with an thin depiction of The Wash above it and then the Holland district with the River Witham to its north—east to west, Spalding, Kirkstead, Thorney, Crowland, Ramsey and Grantham are marked to the south of the river, with Grantham furthest east (surrounded by a brown and red line) and Belvoir to its east (surrounded by a double red line). North of the Witham are Lincoln in red, with a castle drawing, Lindsey in blue, an unnamed and uncoloured river (the Ancholme?) and then Grimsby marked on the coast below the River Humber with its many tributaries (blue)—the other names written south of the Humber are actually the ends of the Yorkshire names Beverley and Whitby, whose first letters are written north of the Humber. Across Lincolnshire and Norfolk are written (Image: BL Cotton MS Claudius D VI, fol. 12v, via Wikimedia Commons).

A map of England attributed to Genoese cartographer Pietro Vesconte in Marino Sanudo's Liber secretorum of c. 1325, based on his earlier portolan chart and mariners' reports; click for a larger view. The Wash is clearly visible as a deep, circular bay halfway up the eastern side of the island; however, whilst numerous ports are marked along the south coast of England and up the east coast as far as The Wash, Lincolnshire is left empty aside from indications of two rivers (the Witham and the Humber?), with the first name inscribed north of The Wash probably representing Ravenserodd, the important thirteenth- and fourteenth-century island port near Spurn Head, East Yorkshire, that was finally destroyed by the sea in the mid-fourteenth century (Image: Wikimedia Commons).

Close up of Lindsey (the northern district of Lincolnshire) on the fourteenth-century Gough Map, with north on the left and major roads, rivers and settlements marked. Lincoln is shown at the bottom right with the Trent running along the bottom edge of the image; Boston is at the top right; and Grimsby is at the top left, with the Humber then running down the left edge of the image. Note the curious name 'Ageland' assigned to roughly the area of the Wolds between Grimsby and Louth, being written in a very similar way to the district-name Lindsey. This name also appears in the fifteenth-century work of Osbern Bokenham, where it seems to again be associated with the Lindsey district of Lincolnshire (Bolingbroke is mentioned shortly afterwards), and it also appears on some sixteenth-century maps of Lincolnshire as a district-name for eastern Lindsey written in the area around Louth, as can be seen below. There are few discussions of this name and its import, sadly; the editors of the Gough Map assume it reflects the wapentake-name Aveland, but it is not clear why this wapentake-name alone would be highlighted like this nor why it would be spelled with a -g- here but nowhere else and then placed in totally the wrong part of Lincolnshire, Aveland wapentake being part of the southern Lincolnshire district of Kesteven, not north-eastern Lindsey (Image: Wikimedia Commons).

Extract from the Angliae Figura, a vellum map probably created in the 1530s and perhaps hanging at Hampton Court (included on the map) as the property of Henry VIII. The coastline of Lincolnshire is clearly faulty between Wainfleet and Spalding, but is close to that seen on the Gough Map; both are thought to derive from a common source map dating from around 1290. As on the Gough Map, the curious name 'Ageland' appears highlighted in red as a major (?district-)name and is once again placed in eastern Lindsey, close to Louth (Image: British Library).

Extract from Sebastian Münster's 1540 map of Britain, showing Lincolnshire. The coastline appears derivative of the tradition of the Gough Map/Angliae Figure, but with more of an indication of The Wash than the latter (as is the case on the 1546 Lily map as well). Only the major rivers are shown along with just a handful of Lincolnshire place-names: Lincoln, Stamford, the Isle of Axholme, Sleaford and 'Walflet', which looks to be Wainfleet or a combination of Wainfleet and Saltfleet. Only two district names appear in Lincolnshire, Axholme and 'Agelon', the latter clearly being equivalent to the earlier 'Ageland' and written across Lindsey in a larger font than the other names, whilst the district-name Lindsey is left out entirely (Image: Lancaster University).

John Leland's sketch map of the Humber district, created c. 1544 to show the drainage basins of the Humber and Witham rivers. Leland's sketch includes a rough approximation of the coastline, rivers and key settlements of Lincolnshire; despite it being a rough sketch, the north and east coasts of Lincolnshire appear to be more realistically rendered than they are on the earlier maps discussed above, although his depiction of the northern Wash coastline to Boston continues to be in the Gough Map/Angliae Figura tradition (image: Sheppard 1912; see further Hearne 1769).

Detail of eastern Lincolnshire from John Leland's sketch map of c. 1544, showing his attempt to sketch both Saltfleet Haven and the early Wainfleet Haven, including the latter's associated tributaries and lakes. Note, Northlod is also mentioned on the 1570 plan of the proposed New Cut at Wainfleet (Image: Sheppard 1912).

Gerard Mercator's engraving of a map of Lincolnshire, originally produced in 1564 and put together into atlas form in the 1570s; north is on the right hand side for this map, which is thought to have been simply engraved by Mercator from an English original, possibly produced by John Elder to assist the French or Spanish in planning an invasion to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. It is worth noting that not only does the map offer considerably a much improved coastline for Lincolnshire and more detail than many earlier maps, in terms of both rivers and settlements depicted (though Mercator seems to have misread some of the names on his original), but that it also once more includes the odd district-name 'Agland' in the area around Louth, despite the fact that the whole area had clearly been resurveyed. As was observed above, versions of this name also occur on the fourteenth-century Gough Map of Lincolnshire in approximately this position, in a fifteenth-century text relating to Lincolnshire, and on the earlier sixteenth-century Angliae Figura and Münster maps too; it also continued to appear on maps in the later sixteenth-century—being found on, for example, Gerard de Jode's 1578 and 1593 maps and on Sebastian Petri's 1588 map—and even appears on some seventeenth-century maps, as can be seen below (Image: British Library).

Map of Lincolnshire drawn by Humphry Lhuyd before his death in 1568 and published in Abraham Ortelius's Atlas in 1573. The map shows the Lincolnshire Wolds for the first time and other areas of local high ground, along with major rivers and key settlements (Image: Wikimedia Commons).

Proof version of John Speed's 1611/12 map of Lincolnshire, which closely followed the Saxton map of 1576 in offering a much more accurate and detailed depiction of the county; a zoomable version of this map is available here. Of particular interest on both maps is the fact that nearly every settlement in Lincolnshire is mapped and so too are the courses of most of the rivers; the latter are of especial note, given how much these courses changed over the following two centuries—note, for example, the original course of the Lud before its canalisation, with its dual outfalls either side of Conisholme, and the fact that the Long Eau and Great Eau were originally separate rivers (Image: Cambridge University, CC-BY-NC 3.0).

Detail from John Speed's early seventeenth-century proof map of Lincolnshire, showing the coastline of north-east Lincolnshire and a whale menacing the Humber estuary! (Image: Cambridge University, CC-BY-NC 3.0).

Extract from a map of Britain by Johannes Janssonius, printed in 1621 and reprinted in 1630, one of the last maps to feature Agland/Ageland as a district-name located in eastern Lindsey. In support of Ageland/Agland as a genuine east Lincolnshire district-name that somehow largely avoided being recorded outside of maps, can be cited the following. First, there is a single textual mention of Ageland in Bokenham's fifteenth-century Legendys of Hooly Wummen, where it occurs as as a district-name located somewhere in the Bolingbroke/South Riding of Lindsey (modern East Lindsey) area:—'But seyth, as ye doon vndyrstand, It was you sent owt of Ageland From a frend of yourys that vsyth to selle Goode hors at feyrys, & doth dwelle A lytyl from the Castel of Bolyngbrok'. Second, Ageland does make an appearance in medieval surnames, which would seem to add weight to the case for it being a genuine place-/region-name—see, for example, the fourteenth-century merchant and bailiff of York named William de Agland/William AgelandIf it is indeed a real name, then the second element might be either OE land or ON lundr, both of which appear in early district-names in the form 'land' (cf. Rutland/Holland & Framland/Aveland), most probably the former as the second element is always 'land', with the first element perhaps then being a personal name like ODan Aghi (Image: BnF).

The text content of this post and page is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2015, 2020, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Saturday 24 October 2015

Some oxygen isotope evidence for long-distance migration to Britain from North Africa & southern Iberia, c.1100 BC–AD 800

The following post offers a brief discussion of some of the oxygen isotope evidence for long-distance contact and migration between Britain and other parts of the world in the early medieval period and before. The particular focus here is on those individuals excavated in Britain whose results are above the expected range for people who grew up on these islands, indicating that they could well have spent part of their childhood in southern Iberia and/or North Africa.

The British Geological Society map of the oxygen isotope values of modern European drinking water from 2004; click for a larger view (image © BGS/NERC, reproduced under a non-commercial/academic, educational and instructive licence, as detailed on the Wessex Archaeology & BGS websites).  

The evidence used below primarily derives from recent research into the British oxygen isotope data retrieved from archaeological human dental enamel. The key principal underlying the utility of this material to archaeologists and historians is the fact that both phosphate oxygen isotope values (δ¹⁸Op) and structural carbonate oxygen isotope values (δ¹⁸Oc) of excavated teeth reflect the isotope composition of the drinking water (δ¹⁸Odw) that the individual consumed in their early years, when their teeth formed. Given that the local oxygen isotope composition of drinking water varies widely across not only the British Isles but also Europe and North Africa, reflecting variations in local climate and elevation, this means that oxygen isotope analysis has the potential to allow archaeologists to identify people who grew up outside of Britain with a far greater degree of confidence than was previously possible.(1)

The above is undoubtedly of considerable importance for the history of long-distance contact and movement between Britain and other parts of the world, and the focus in what follows is on the potential use of such material for identifying people who may have moved to Britain from southern Iberia and especially North Africa. There are two main reasons for such a focus. First and foremost, contact between Britain and this area is a recurring topic of interest for this blog, and the oxygen isotope evidence offers another possible window on such contacts in the early medieval period and before.(2) Second, people brought up in southern Iberia and North Africa can have notably higher oxygen isotope values that those brought up in Britain, unlike those brought up in France and the Netherlands, for example, where the drinking water oxygen isotope range is similar to that found in Britain. Needless to say, this makes their identification in the British archaeological record potentially somewhat easier.(3)

What follows offers a look at some of the sites that include burials of people whose dental enamel oxygen isotope results are at the highest end of the British range and beyond and so are potentially migrants to Britain from southern Iberia and/or North Africa, starting with the early medieval era and working backwards to the Bronze Age.

Early Medieval South Wales

A survey of dental enamel recovered from four early medieval cemeteries in South Wales reveals at least twelve individuals spread across three of the cemeteries who have oxygen isotope values above the upper end of the British range, representing more than a third of the total number of individuals investigated from these burial grounds.(4) Four of these people are defined as 'marginal', having results only just above 18.6‰ δ¹⁸Op, the conventional upper cut-off for phosphate oxygen isotope values from the British Isles, and so could possibly still represent people who grew up on the extreme western coast of Ireland, the Outer Hebrides or the Lands End area, where δ¹⁸O drinking water values are at their highest (-5.0‰ to -4.5‰ δ¹⁸Odw). The other eight individuals, however, have what are described as 'notably enriched δ¹⁸Op values', clearly above the conventional δ¹⁸Op upper cut-off for Britain and reflecting the consumption of water with δ¹⁸Odw values noticeably higher than the maximum British level of c. -4.5‰, and five of them moreover have very significantly enriched values, indicative of their childhood consumption of drinking water that had δ¹⁸Odw values ranging up to a maximum of around -3.3‰, well over 1‰ above the highest values found in Britain. In this context, it is worth noting that water oxygen isotope values above the British range and between -4.5‰ and c. -4.0‰ appear only to be encountered in Europe in small areas of south-east and south-west Iberia and are otherwise restricted to North Africa or further afield. Values between -4.0‰ and -3.5‰ are again found in North Africa but are even rarer in Europe, being only reported from a small area around Cádiz, southwest Spain, where groundwater values as high as -3.5‰ have been noted, whilst even higher values up to 0‰ and beyond are encountered only in Africa and Arabia.(5) As such, the above oxygen isotope results from early medieval South Wales are clearly of considerable potential interest to historians and archaeologists.

The geographic distribution of areas outside of the UK with rainwater oxygen isotope values above ‑5.0‰, shown in dark blue; all twelve of the people from South Wales discussed above consumed water with a δ¹⁸O level of c. ‑4.5‰ or higher (up to c. ‑3.3‰) in early life. Note, only 1% of the UK has δ¹⁸Odw water levels above ‑5.0‰, up to a maximum value of c. ‑4.5‰, but as the map shows, such levels are widely encountered throughout North Africa and in small areas of southern Europe. Levels above ‑4.0‰ are even more restricted in extent, being only recorded in Europe from a small area around Cádiz, southwest Spain, and are otherwise confined to North Africa, whilst levels above c. ‑3.5‰ are only known from North Africa and further afield. Image: C. R. Green, based on data from the sources cited in fn 3, especially Evans et al 2012 and Bowen 2003–15, utilising a Wikimedia Commons map of the Mediterranean region as a base.

With regard to the interpretation of this evidence, several points need to be made. First and foremost, it should be remembered that there is now a significant body of archaeological evidence that is usually thought to indicate the direct importation of goods from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean into western Britain in the post-Roman period, probably beginning in the late fifth century AD and continuing into the sixth. The evidence for this consists of finds of Mediterranean amphorae sherds, used for transporting wine and olive oil, along with sherds of African Red Slip-Ware (ARSW) from the Carthage region and Phocaean Red Slip-Ware (PRSW) from western Asia Minor, with north-eastern Mediterranean material dominating the trade at first followed by surge in North African imports in the middle third of the sixth century AD. This material is primarily found at the important post-Roman high-status promontory fort of Tintagel, Cornwall, but it also occurs more widely throughout the south-west and along the western coast of Britain, including in South Wales, and is thought to have potentially arrived in Britain as a result of direct (and directed) imperial trade aimed primarily at procuring tin in the period c. 475–550.(6) Needless to say, this direct trade between the Mediterranean and Atlantic Britain supplies an obvious context for the apparent presence of migrants from southern Iberia and/or North Africa revealed by the isotopic material mentioned above, and it is indeed considered the most credible interpretation by the authors of the dental enamel survey.

Second, it is worth observing that three of the four cemeteries studied (Brownslade, Llandough and Porthclew) all included not only individuals with phosphate oxygen isotope results above the conventional British tooth enamel δ¹⁸Op cut-off of 18.6‰, but also that all three of these cemeteries actually included individuals with the very significantly enriched results indicative of the consumption of drinking water with δ¹⁸O values above -4.0‰, arguably most consistent with a North African origin. This obviously suggests that the long-distance movement of people from the Mediterranean to early medieval Wales was not an isolated event, something further supported by the fact that people with 'notably enriched' δ¹⁸Op results in these cemeteries formed nearly a quarter of all those tested, a very significant proportion indeed. Moreover, the possibility that migrant groups may well have been living in South Wales in the early medieval period is further heightened by the fact three of the individuals with notably enriched values were women and two were non-adults, implying the presence of families and further countering the idea that the post-Roman direct trade between the Mediterranean and Atlantic Britain was carried out solely by male, mercantile groups who stayed only for a brief period of time. Third and finally, it is interesting to observe that one of the people from Porthclew with a significantly enriched phosphate oxygen isotope value of 19.1‰, suggesting the childhood ingestion of drinking water with a value of c. -3.8‰, was radiocarbon dated to AD 680–900 (at 2σ). This dating is rather later than the period in which the maritime trade between South Wales and the southern Mediterranean discussed above was focussed, and it may consequently be suggestive of continued contact and movement between these areas even after the cessation of significant trading activity.(7)

Early Medieval Northumbria

An oxygen and strontium isotope survey was undertaken on 78 individuals buried in the seventh- to early ninth-century cemetery at Bamburgh (Northumberland), the 'royal city' of the Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian kingdom of Bernicia. This revealed that over 50% of those buried here have 'non-local' isotopic signatures, indicative of them having spent their childhood in other areas such as Scandinavia, Ireland, western and southern Britain, continental Europe and North Africa. Such a degree of cosmopolitanism is credibly ascribed by the authors of the survey to the fact that the cemetery here was associated with the principal pre-Viking royal centre in the north of England, and documentary and archaeological sources certainly record the presence of people from Ireland, Scotland, continental Europe and North Africa in Anglo-Saxon England.(8) With regard to the specific results retrieved, there are 14 people buried in this cemetery who have isotope levels indicative of the consumption of water with a value at or a little above the maximum encountered in the British Isles, c. -4.5‰ (see above). and 3‰ or more above the oxygen isotope level of drinking water in the Bamburgh area, c. -7.5‰ δ¹⁸Odw. Even more interesting from the perspective of the present post, however, are the seven men, women and non-adults—9% of the total—whose oxygen isotope values are in fact significantly enriched beyond both the British range and the rest of the population of the cemetery, being indicative of the consumption of water with values ranging from -4.0‰ up to -2.45‰ δ¹⁸Odw. As was discussed in the previous section, such results are most consistent with an early life spent in southwestern Iberia or North Africa, perhaps most plausibly the latter given that three of these people had values reflecting δ¹⁸Odw between -3.2‰ and -2.45‰, levels only encountered in North Africa or further afield.(9)

Bamburgh Castle viewed from Holy Island (image: Akuppa, used under its CC BY 2.0 license).

Roman Winchester

An isotopic survey of 40 individuals buried in the Late Roman Lankhills cemetery at Winchester revealed the presence of a significant number of probable non-locals, primarily from areas with higher drinking water oxygen isotope levels than are found in Britain or much of Europe. Eleven of the people tested in this cemetery have isotope results indicative of a non-British origin, with ten of these—25% of the total number tested—having values above the conventional upper cut-offs for oxygen isotope values from the British Isles (see above). As before, some of these have values only just above the latter level and so could conceivably still represent people who grew up on the extreme western coast of Ireland, the Outer Hebrides or the Lands End area, where δ¹⁸O drinking water values are at their highest. Others, however, have results that are notably enriched, and five have results indicative of the consumption of drinking water with oxygen isotope values from -4.0‰ right up to -2.8‰, the latter far above the British range and clearly implying an early life spent in North Africa.(10) Given this, it might well be wondered whether all those with values above the normal British range are not more likely to be of Mediterranean origin too, and a recent analysis of the thirteen people with the highest δ¹⁸O values from Lankhills, at or above the top of the British range, suggests that they form a discrete sub-group within the cemetery and that it is significantly more probable that they had their origins either in southern Iberia and/or North Africa than in the British Isles.(11)

Interestingly, the burial rites of the people with these extremely high results showed, in the main, no consistent pattern, confirming earlier observations that there is a mismatch in this cemetery, at least, between 'non-local' and 'local' burial rites and the actual origins of the people buried, contrary to previous hypotheses resulting from the original 1967–72 excavation of part of the Lankhills site. However, it is perhaps worth noting that one of the people with oxygen isotope results that were enriched above the usual British range was buried with two rare North African unguent flasks. Similarly, the individual with the very highest results, equivalent to -2.8‰ δ¹⁸Odw, has cranial characteristics that are suggested to be consistent with an origin in Egypt, and another person with oxygen isotope values above the conventional British cut-off has cranial characteristics said to be indicative of a 'Black' or 'Asian' origin. Finally, it is also important to note that the people with significantly enriched values were once again not exclusively male, as has sometimes been assumed to the case for early migrants—indeed, four of the five with the highest results were all female.(12)

North African unguentaria from Grave 82 at the Late Roman cemetery, Lankhills, Winchester (image: Oxford Archaeology, reused under their CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

Roman York

Isotopic analysis has been undertaken for a number of cemeteries from Roman York. One is the extremely unusual all-male cemetery at Driffield Terrace, York, where more than half the individuals interred had been decapitated. Teeth from eighteen individuals were sampled from 6 Driffield Terrace, three of which had oxygen isotope values at or just above the conventional upper cut-off for the British Isles and another of which had a result far above this, of 19.8‰ δ¹⁸Op, indicating the childhood consumption of drinking water with a value significantly above -3.0‰. Similarly, the remains of 43 individuals from the Trentholme Drive and The Railway cemeteries at York were subjected to isotopic analysis. Five of these had oxygen isotope results above the British range and three moreover had values that were very significantly above this, indicative of the childhood consumption of drinking water with values of -3.12‰, -2.87‰ and -2.31‰, respectively.(13) As was noted above, drinking water with such enriched values as these is not encountered in Europe and is instead indicative of an origin in North Africa.

In this light, it is interesting to note that anthroposcopic/craniometric analysis was also undertaken for both of the latter cemeteries at York too, with 11% of the Trentholme Drive samples and 12% of The Railway individuals being considered very likely to be of 'African descent', whilst yet more are thought to have potential 'mixed' or 'black' ancestry, up to a possible maximum of 38% of the population buried at Trentholme Drive and 51% of the population in the higher-status The Railway cemetery. Two of the three individuals with the highest oxygen isotope results were assessed by these means, one of whom was identified as being of potential 'mixed' ancestry and the other of 'white' ancestry. Of those thought likely to be of 'black' ancestry, only a proportion were also subject to isotopic analysis. The majority of these had oxygen isotope results significantly above the local range at York, where some of the lowest results in Britain are found, but still within the theoretical British range, and the interpretation of these individuals is a matter of debate, just as is the case for the famous Late Roman 'ivory bangle lady' of York too, who is believed to be of 'black' ancestry but consumed drinking water in childhood with a δ¹⁸Odw value only just within the upper end of the British range. Drinking water δ¹⁸O values that might produce the results of all of these people can certainly be found in western or far western Britain and Ireland, but it should be recalled that they are also available in other regions of the Roman Empire, including along parts of the Atlantic coast of France and Iberia, in some areas of the European Mediterranean coast, and in North Africa too. As such, it must remain unclear whether these people might all represent 'second generation migrants', as the authors of the study suggest, or if some of them could be 'first generation migrants' who had simply spent their childhood in those parts of North Africa that have similar δ¹⁸Odw values to those found in parts of Europe and Britain.(14)

A re-erected Roman column at York; this once stood within the great hall of the headquarters building of the fortress of the Sixth Legion at York (image: Carole Raddato, used under its CC BY-SA 2.0 license). 

Roman Gloucester

The teeth of 21 individuals were sampled from a first- to fourth-century AD cemetery at Roman Gloucester, ten from the main cemetery and eleven from a second-century AD mass grave. As at Winchester, a significant subgroup within both areas of this cemetery had clearly enriched oxygen isotope values when compared to both the expected local range for people brought up in the local area of the town and the British Isles in general. This subgroup numbers 6 or 7 people, representing 28–33% of the total subjects tested, all of whom have oxygen isotope values at or above the conventional upper cut-off for oxygen isotope values from the British Isles, with the majority of them having consumed significantly enriched drinking water with δ¹⁸O values above -4.0‰, implying a probable early life spent in either southernmost Iberia or North Africa. Moreover, the members of the subgroup also all had notably enriched δ¹³C results compared to the rest of the population of the cemetery, something that is credibly seen as resulting from an early consumption of plants grown in the Mediterranean region rather than Britain. Finally, it is worth noting that the group with enriched oxygen isotope results was once again made up of both men and women.(15)

Late Bronze Age and Iron Age Kent

An isotopic analysis of the teeth of 26 individuals from a Late Bronze Age–Middle Iron Age (eleventh- to third-century BC) cemetery at Cliffs End Farm on the Isle of Thanet, Kent, has produced some of the highest oxygen isotope values yet recovered from archaeological teeth in Britain. Drinking water in this part of Kent has an oxygen isotope value of around -7.1‰, with no significant change believed to have taken place over the Holocene, but it is clear that a significant proportion of the people buried in this cemetery had actually consumed water with much higher or lower values than this in their early life. A small number of individuals from this cemetery had, for example, δ¹⁸Op results indicative of consuming drinking water with oxygen isotope values between c. -5.0‰ and -4.5‰. People with such elevated results are perhaps unlikely to have spent their childhood in eastern Kent, although quite where they might have moved to Kent from is open to debate, as drinking water with these values is found in several areas including the extreme west of Britain or Ireland, southern Iberia, the heel of Italy, and North Africa. More clarity is possible, however, with a further five individuals from this cemetery—19% of the total number investigated—who had results suggesting that they grew up in areas where water oxygen isotope values were even higher, above -4.0‰. Such levels are only really encountered in the extreme south-west of Iberia (around Cádiz) and in North Africa, and four of the people in question moreover had results indicative of consuming drinking water with levels above -3.0‰, well above those encountered anywhere in Europe and clearly implying an early life spent in North Africa.(16)

With regard to the five individuals with the most highly enriched δ¹⁸O values, it is worth noting that they belonged to both the Bronze Age and the Iron Age phases of the cemetery, although the majority date from the earlier era. It is also intriguing to note that two of them—one interred in the Late Bronze Age (eleventh to ninth century BC) and one in the Middle Iron Age (fourth to third century BC)—have the highest δ¹⁸Op values ever recorded from Britain, c. 21.4‰. Such results reflect the consumption of drinking water with an oxygen isotope value of around -1.0‰ to 0‰, which is far beyond anything known from Britain and probably indicative of a childhood spent in the Nile Valley, where equivalent δ¹⁸Ovalues have been recorded from the ancient burial site at Mendes in the Nile Delta, Egypt.(17) Needless to say, this is of considerable interest. In terms of potential contexts for such long distance movement between the Mediterranean and Britain in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, previous posts on this site have discussed a variety of numismatic, archaeological, textual and linguistic evidence for contact between these areas in the pre-Roman Iron Age, including the presence of a Mediterranean anchor of potentially as early as the fifth century BC in Plymouth Sound. One might also point to the find of a North African Barbary ape skull from a probable third- to second-century BC context at Navan Fort, Northern Ireland, in this regard too. With regard to the Late Bronze Age, things area possibly a little less clear, unfortunately, although it is usually thought that there was movement along at least the Atlantic coast of Europe in this era and there are certainly a small number of possible Mediterranean items and anchors of this era that have been found off the southern coast of Britain and which may have some relevance here.(18)

A Sicilian strumento of c. 1200–1100 BC, found on the sea-floor at Salcombe, Devon, with other Bronze Age items from a probable twelfth-century BC shipwreck (image: British Museum).


Several key points emerge from the above summary of burial sites producing oxygen isotope evidence indicative of the presence of people from North Africa and southern Iberia in Britain between c. 1100 BC and c. AD 800, three of which are highlighted here by way of a conclusion. First and foremost, it is important to note that at least some migrants from these areas appear to have been present in Britain during all periods from the Late Bronze Age onwards. Whilst the presence of people from North Africa in Roman Britain is to a large degree unsurprising, as they are otherwise attested via literary and epigraphic sources, the fact that it can be shown that people from these areas were very probably also present in Bronze Age, Iron Age and early medieval Britain is a point of some considerable interest.

Second, the proportion of such individuals in each of the cemeteries surveyed is significant. For example, around a fifth of those buried in the Cliffs End prehistoric cemetery have oxygen isotope values probably indicative of such origins, as do around a quarter of those tested from the three early medieval cemeteries in South Wales and the Late Roman cemetery at Winchester, whilst at Roman Gloucester the proportion may be as high as a third. In this context, it is interesting to note that the anthroposcopic/craniometric analysis of two Roman cemeteries at York similarly points towards the presence of a potentially large number of people whose own or family origins lay in North Africa, with 11%–12% of those examined considered very likely to be of 'African descent', and yet others thought to have potential 'mixed' or 'black' ancestry, up to a possible maximum of 38% of the population buried at Trentholme Drive and 51% of the population in the higher-status The Railway cemetery. Of course, the sites and cemeteries surveyed here are likely to be to some extent exceptional, being located either at local capitals or close to the coast, but these results are nonetheless fascinating and certainly imply that some areas of Britain, at least, saw a degree of immigration from North Africa and/or southern Iberia in the early medieval period and before.

Finally, it is interesting to note that the potential migrants to Britain from North Africa and/or southern Iberia discussed above include men, women and non-adults, implying that contact between Britain and these areas was not solely the preserve of male mercantile or military groups, as has sometimes been assumed. Indeed, in some cases women and non-adults actually form the majority of the migrants identifiable there via oxygen isotope analysis, as is the case at Winchester and in South Wales.


1     On current approaches to oxygen isotope analysis and the underlying methodology, principles and issues, see, for example, J. A. Evans, C. A. Chenery & J. Montgomery, 'A summary of strontium and oxygen isotope variation in archaeological human tooth enamel excavated from Britain', Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry, 27 (2012), 754–64 and Supplementary Material I (14 pp.), and C. Chenery et al, 'Strontium and stable isotope evidence for diet and mobility in Roman Gloucester, UK', Journal of Archaeological Science, 37 (2010), 150–63. The current post follows the interpretations and approaches to those individuals with notably enriched dental enamel oxygen isotope results adopted in these studies and also in other recent publications such as K. A. Hemer et al, 'Evidence of early medieval trade and migration between Wales and the Mediterranean Sea region', Journal of Archaeological Science, 40 (2013), 2352–59.
2     See, for example, C. R. Green, 'Thanet, Tanit and the Phoenicians: place-names, archaeology and pre-Roman trading settlements in eastern Kent?', 21 April 2015, blog post, online at http://www.caitlingreen.org/2015/04/thanet-tanit-and-the-phoenicians.html; 'A Mediterranean anchor stock of the fifth to mid-second century BC found off the coast of Britain', 29 August 2015, blog post, online at http://www.caitlingreen.org/2015/08/a-mediterranean-anchor.html; and 'A great host of captives? A note on Vikings in Morocco and Africans in early medieval Ireland & Britain', 12 September 2015, blog post, online at http://www.caitlingreen.org/2015/09/a-great-host-of-captives.html.
3      The current oxygen isotope range for drinking water (δ¹⁸Odw) in Britain and Ireland is around -9.0‰ to -4.5‰, with only 1% of the British Isles having values above -5.0‰, namely in the extreme south-west of Britain, the extreme south-west of Ireland, and part of the Outer Hebrides, a situation that is believed to have changed little between the Mesolithic and Medieval eras. This range accords well with the apparent local British range of phosphate oxygen isotope values from excavated teeth, which is usually agreed to fall between 16.6‰ and 18.6‰ δ¹⁸Op, although Evans et al have recently concluded that people brought up on the far west of the British Isles could potentially have values a little higher too, reflecting the degree of normal ambient variation that might be seen within populations exposed to the extremes of drinking water composition within the British Isles. Similar or lower drinking water oxygen isotope values, from <-10.0‰ to -5.0‰, are found across much of western Europe, as can be seen from the first map reproduced above. In contrast, southern Iberia has notably higher drinking water/precipitation δ¹⁸O values, from -5.0‰ up to a maximum of c. -4.0‰, except around Cádiz where drinking water values of up to c. -3.5‰ have been noted, and North Africa has values from the British range right up to around 0‰, with even higher values found in parts of Sudan (ancient Nubia) and Ethiopia. See further on Britain W. G. Darling et al, 'The O and H stable isotope composition of freshwaters in the British Isles. 2. Surface waters and groundwater', Hydrology and Earth System Sciences Discussions, 7 (2003), 183–95;  J. A. Evans et al, 'A summary of strontium and oxygen isotope variation in archaeological human tooth enamel excavated from Britain', Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry, 27 (2012), 754–64 at pp. 757–8 and Table 1; C. Chenery et al, 'Strontium and stable isotope evidence for diet and mobility in Roman Gloucester, UK', Journal of Archaeological Science, 37 (2010), 150–63 at pp. 153, 156–7, 160. On mainland Europe and Africa, see BGS/C. Chenery, 'Oxygen isotopes values for modern European drinking water' (map), online at www.wessexarch.co.uk/projects/amesbury/tests/oxygen_isotope.html; Evans et al, 'Summary of strontium and oxygen isotope variation', fig. 12; G. Bowen, 'Waterisotopes.org: global and regional maps of isotope ratios in precipitation', online dataset 2003–15, figures online at http://wateriso.utah.edu/waterisotopes/pages/data_access/figures.html; L. J. Araguas-Araguas & M. F. Diaz Teijeiro, 'Isotope composition of precipitation and water vapour in the Iberian Peninsula', in IAEA, Isotopic composition of precipitation in the Mediterranean Basin in relation to air circulation patterns and climate (Vienna, 2005), pp. 173–90 at fig. 3; M. R. Buzon & G. Bowen, 'Oxygen and carbon isotope analysis of human tooth enamel from the New Kingdom site of Tombos in Nubia', Archaeometry, 52 (2010), 855–68, esp. Table 2; C. White et al, 'Exploring the effects of environment, physiology and diet on oxygen isotope ratios in ancient Nubian bones and teeth', Journal of Archaeological Science, 31 (2004), 233–50 and Table 2.
4     K. A. Hemer et al, 'Evidence of early medieval trade and migration between Wales and the Mediterranean Sea region', Journal of Archaeological Science, 40 (2013), 2352–59.
5     See further the references cited in footnote 4, especially Evans et al, 'Summary of strontium and oxygen isotope variation', fig. 12, and Araguas-Araguas & Diaz Teijeiro, 'Isotope composition of precipitation and water vapour in the Iberian Peninsula', fig. 3. See also K. Killgrove, Migration and Mobility in Imperial Rome (University of North Carolina PhD Thesis, 2010), pp. 263, 280, 284–5, 310–11 who identifies the three people in her study of Rome who have oxygen isotope results indicative of consuming drinking water with a δ¹⁸O value above -4.0‰ as probable North African immigrants to the city, rather than European.
6     See, for example, M. Fulford, 'Byzantium and Britain: a Mediterranean perspective on post-Roman Mediterranean imports in western Britain and Ireland', Medieval Archaeology, 33 (1989), 1–6; E. Campbell, Continental and Mediterranean Imports to Atlantic Britain and Ireland, AD 400–800, Council for British Archaeology Research Report 157 (York, 2007); E. Campbell & C. Bowles, 'Byzantine trade to the edge of the world: Mediterranean pottery imports to Atlantic Britain in the 6th century', in M. M. Mango (ed.), Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th Centuries: The Archaeology of Local, Regional and International Exchange (Farnham, 2009), pp. 297–314; T. M. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 350–1064 (Oxford, 2013), pp. 222–3.
7     Hemer et al, 'Evidence of early medieval trade and migration between Wales and the Mediterranean Sea region', 2357–8.
8     S. E. Groves et al, 'Mobility histories of 7th–9th century AD people buried at early medieval Bamburgh, Northumberland, England', American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 151 (2013), 462–76. The description of Bamburgh as 'the royal city' of Bernicia is that of Bede, writing in the first half of the eighth century (Historia Ecclesiastica, III.6). With regard to the documentary evidence for Africans in Anglo-Saxon England, see also Historia Ecclesiastica IV.1, where Bede describes Hadrian, the later seventh- and eighth-century Abbot of St Augustine's, Canterbury, as 'a man of African race' (HE IV.1).
9     Groves et al, 'Mobility histories of 7th–9th century AD people buried at early medieval Bamburgh', esp. pp. 465, 470 and Supplementary Figure 7.
10     P. Booth et al, The Late Roman Cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester: Excavations 2000–2004 (Oxford, 2010), pp. 421–8; H. Eckardt et al, 'Oxygen and strontium isotope evidence for mobility in Roman Winchester', Journal of Archaeological Science, 36 (2009), 2816–25.
11      Evans et al, 'Summary of strontium and oxygen isotope variation', fig. 11 & pp. 760–2.
12     Booth et alThe Late Roman Cemetery at Lankhills, pp. 249–51, 361, 509–16.
13     G. Müldner et al, 'The ‘Headless Romans’: multi-isotope investigations of an unusual burial ground from Roman Britain', Journal of Archaeological Science, 38 (2011), 280–90; S. Leach et al, 'Migration and diversity in Roman Britain: a multidisciplinary approach to the identification of immigrants in Roman York, England', American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 140 (2009), 546–61.
14     Leach et al, 'Migration and diversity in Roman Britain', Table 4 and pp. 546, 550–2, 558–9; S. Leach et al, 'A Lady of York: migration, ethnicity and identity in Roman Britain', Antiquity, 84 (2010), 131–45. On the isotopic values of water in North Africa, see for example Evans et al, 'Summary of strontium and oxygen isotope variation', fig. 12, and G. Bowen, 'Waterisotopes.org: global and regional maps of isotope ratios in precipitation'.
15     C. Chenery et al, 'Strontium and stable isotope evidence for diet and mobility in Roman Gloucester, UK', Journal of Archaeological Science, 37 (2010), 150–63, who note that 'the probability of these [individuals] being from Britain is small and an origin abroad is more likely' (p. 158).
16     The above is based primarily on J. I. McKinley et al, 'Dead-sea connections: a Bronze Age and Iron Age ritual site on the Isle of Thanet', in J. T. Koch & B. Cunliffe (eds.), Celtic from the West 2. Rethinking the Bronze Age and the Arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe (Oxford, 2013), pp. 157–83, esp. pp. 166–8 and figs. 6.5, 6.6 and 6.7.
17     The oxygen isotope values from the Mendes burial site in the Nile Delta, Egypt, are expressed as both δ¹⁸Odw and δ¹⁸Oc in Buzon & Bowen, 'Oxygen and carbon isotope analysis of human tooth enamel from the New Kingdom site of Tombos in Nubia', Table 2, and the latter can be converted to δ¹⁸Op using the equation in C. Chenery et al, 'The oxygen isotope relationship between the phosphate and structural carbonate fractions of human bioapatite', Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry, 26 (2012), 309–19. Needless to say, the δ¹⁸Op and equivalent δ¹⁸Odw values of the two people from Thanet fall within both the reported δ¹⁸Odw and the calculated δ¹⁸Op ranges for Mendes, and are moveover above the bottom of the range of δ¹⁸Op values for people who grew up in the Nile Valley (21.0‰) as reported in Chenery et al, 'Strontium and stable isotope evidence for diet and mobility in Roman Gloucester, UK', p. 158.
18     On pre-Roman Iron Age contacts, see especially C. R. Green, 'Thanet, Tanit and the Phoenicians: place-names, archaeology and pre-Roman trading settlements in eastern Kent?', 21 April 2015, blog post, online at http://www.caitlingreen.org/2015/04/thanet-tanit-and-the-phoenicians.html, and 'A Mediterranean anchor stock of the fifth to mid-second century BC found off the coast of Britain', 29 August 2015, blog post, online at http://www.caitlingreen.org/2015/08/a-mediterranean-anchor.html. On the Barbary ape from Navan Fort, Northern Ireland, see for example I. Armit, Headhunting and the Body in Iron Age Europe (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 72–3, and K. A. Costa, 'Marketing archaeological heritage sites in Ireland', in Y. M. Rowan and U. Baram (eds.), Marketing Heritage: Archaeology and the Consumption of the Past (Walnut Creek, 2004), pp. 69–92 at p. 73. On possible finds of Late Bronze Age Mediterranean items from Britain, see for example S. Needham & C. Giardino, 'From Sicily to Salcombe: a Mediterranean Bronze Age object from British coastal waters', Antiquity, 82 (2008), 60–72, and D. Parham et al, 'Questioning the wrecks of time', British Archaeology, 91 (2006), 43–7, online at http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba91/feat2.shtml. A possible three-holed Bronze Age stone Mediterranean anchor from Plymouth Sound has been mentioned in news reports relating to the SHIPS Project/ProMare, but is as yet unidentified on the database for this project; see T. Nichols, 'Unique project launched to shed light on hidden treasures in Plymouth Sound', Plymouth Herald, 5 July 2014, online at http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/Shedding-light-hidden-treasures-Sound/story-21332210-detail/story.html, although it should be noted that the dating and geographical origins of such stone anchors is open to debate.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2015, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Saturday 12 September 2015

A great host of captives? A note on Vikings in Morocco and Africans in early medieval Ireland & Britain

The following short note is based on a narrative preserved in the eleventh-century Fragmentary Annals of Ireland that tells of a Viking raid on Morocco in the 860s. This raid is said to have led to the taking of 'a great host' of North African captives by the Vikings, who then carried them back to Ireland, where they reportedly remained a distinct group—'the black men'—for some considerable period of time after their arrival. The narrative in question runs as follows:
At this time came the Aunites (that is, the Danes) with innumerable armies to York, and they sacked the city, and they overcame it; and that was the beginning of harassment and misfortunes for the Britons; for it was not long before this that there had been every war and every trouble in Norway, and this was the source of that war in Norway: two younger sons of Albdan, king of Norway, drove out the eldest son, i.e. Ragnall son of Albdan, for fear that he would seize the kingship of Norway after their father. So Ragnall came with his three sons to the Orkneys. Ragnall stayed there then, with his youngest son. The older sons, however, filled with arrogance and rashness, proceeded with a large army, having mustered that army from all quarters, to march against the Franks and Saxons. They thought that their father would return to Norway immediately after their departure.
     Then their arrogance and their youthfulness incited them to voyage across the Cantabrian Ocean (i.e. the sea that is between Ireland and Spain) and they reached Spain, and they did many evil things in Spain, both destroying and plundering. After that they proceeded across the Gaditanean Straits (i.e. the place where the Irish Sea [sic] goes into the surrounding ocean), so that they reached Africa, and they waged war against the Mauritanians, and made a great slaughter of the Mauritanians. However, as they were going to this battle, one of the sons said to the other, ‘Brother,’ he said, ‘we are very foolish and mad to be killing ourselves going from country to country throughout the world, and not to be defending our own patrimony, and doing the will of our father, for he is alone now, sad and discouraged in a land not his own, since the other son whom we left along with him has been slain, as has been revealed to me.’ It would seem that that was revealed to him in a dream vision; and his Ragnall's other son was slain in battle; and moreover, the father himself barely escaped from that battle—which dream proved to be true.
      While he was saying that, they saw the Mauritanian forces coming towards them, and when the son who spoke the above words saw that, he leaped suddenly into the battle, and attacked the king of the Mauritanians, and gave bim a blow with a great sword and cut off his hand. There was hard fighting on both sides in this battle, and neither of them won the victory from the other in that battle. But all returned to camp, after many among them had been slain. However, they challenged each other to come to battle the next day.
      The king of the Mauritanians escaped from the camp and fled in the night after his hand had been cut off. When the morning came, the Norwegians seized their weapons and readied themselves firmly and bravely for the battle. The Mauritanians, however, when they noticed that their king had departed, fled after they had been terribly slain. Thereupon the Norwegians swept across the country, and they devastated and burned the whole land. Then they brought a great host of them captive with them to Ireland, i.e. those are the black men [literally 'blue men' but with the sense 'black', see further here]. For Mauri is the same as nigri; 'Mauritania' is the same as nigritudo. Hardly one in three of the Norwegians escaped, between those who were slain, and those who drowned in the Gaditanian Straits. Now those black men remained in Ireland for a long time. Mauritania is located across from the Balearic Islands. (J. N. Radner (ed. & trans.), Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin, 1978), FA 330, pp. 120–1)
This is, of course, a most intriguing account, but two points in particular need to be noted. First, the text only survives in five fragments transcribed in the seventeenth century and appears to have its origin in the eleventh century, perhaps being composed during the latter part of the reign of Donnchad of Osraige (r. 1003–39), who was a descendant of the chief hero of the Fragmentary Annals, Cerball mac Dúnlainge of Osraige (r. 842–88). Second, the narrative preserved in the Fragmentary Annals not only probably dates from more than a century and a half after the events it purports to describe, but the FA moreover cannot be treated as a simple, reliable chronicle of events. Rather, it appears to be a composite text that derives from a number of pre-existing sources, including a derivative of the lost early to mid-tenth-century ‘Chronicle of Clonmacnoise’, a pseudo-historical narrative concerning the deeds of Cerball, and a handful of other sources including a Hiberno-Norse version of the legend of Ragnarr Loðbrók, with the African expedition believed to have its origins in the latter source.

The final section of FA 330, detailing how the Vikings brought a 'great host' of North African captives back to Ireland, from O'Donovan's 1860 edition of the text; click the image for a larger view (image: Internet Archive).

In light of the above, the account in the Fragmentary Annals has been viewed with some suspicion. Nonetheless, the suggestion that Vikings might have raided along the coast of North Africa and even perhaps captured and enslaved people from this region is supported, to some degree, by other historical and archaeological evidence. Of particular importance in this regard is the fact that medieval Muslim writers also refer to Vikings (Majūs) having raided along the North African coast in the mid-ninth century. For example, the Andalusi geographer Al-Bakrī in his Kitāb al-Masālik wa-al-Mamālik ('Book of Roads and Kingdoms'), completed c. 1068 but based on earlier materials, records the following:
Majūs [Vikings]—God curse them—landed at Nakūr [Nekor, Morocco], in the year 244 (858–859). They took the city, plundered it, and made its inhabitants slaves, except those who saved themselves by flight. Among their prisoners were Ama al-Raḥmān and Khanūla, daughters of Wakif ibn-Mu'tasim ibn-Ṣāliḥ. [The emir] Muḥammed ransomed them. The Majūs stayed eight days in Nakūr.
The same basic tale is recorded by a number of other writers too, including the tenth-century Andalusi historian Ibn al-Qūṭīya and the later authors Ibn Idhārī and Ibn Khaldūn, and a version also appears in the late ninth-century Christian Chronicle of Alfonso III, where it is related that the 'Northman pirates... sailed the sea and attacked Nekur, a city in Mauritania, and there they killed a vast number of Muslims.' Needless to say, the above is of considerable interest in the present context, and the reality of Viking activity in the region of Morocco is further supported by a recent analysis of bones of ancient mice recovered from the Portuguese island of Madeira, located off the coast of Morocco, which indicates that this island was probably visited by Vikings from Scandinavia/northern Germany in the tenth or early eleventh century, at least four centuries before the medieval Portuguese colonisation of the island.

Map showing the territories and voyages of the Vikings, with dates for key settlements and expeditions (image: Wikimedia Commons).

It would thus seem clear that the Vikings were active in the area of Morocco (ancient Mauretania) in the ninth and tenth centuries, just as the Fragmentary Annals claims, and that they moreover undertook a significant raid on the coast of Morocco—at Nakūr/Nekor—in the mid-ninth century that resulted in a significant number of slaves being taken. Indeed, in this light it might well be wondered whether the above raid on Nakūr/Nekor in 859 doesn't actually underlie the story of a mid-ninth-century North African adventure related in the Fragmentary Annals, as Janet Nelson has suggested. Of course, if the Viking raid on Morocco and the subsequent taking of captives there as described in the FA therefore has a good context in the real events of the 'Viking Age' and might even reflect a partially legendarised version of the raid on Nakūr, what then of the claim in the Fragmentary Annals that the North African captives were subsequently carried by the Vikings to Ireland and remained there 'for a long time'? Certainly, Ann Christys has noted that there is nothing inherently implausible about this final aspect of the FA's tale, especially given that other elements of the account appear to be historically credible and may derive from one or more real events. However, whilst other more reliable texts also mention Viking raids on the Moroccan coast and slaves being taken by them, none mention what happened to the non-royal prisoners that the Majūs (Vikings) captured in North Africa, only that the Emir of Córdoba ransomed the royal daughters of Wakif ibn-Mu'tasim ibn-Ṣāliḥ who were taken when the inhabitants of Nakūr were enslaved in 859. On the other hand, although external textual support for the final part of the account in the Fragmentary Annals may be lacking, there is nonetheless some archaeological evidence which, whilst not conclusive, is at the very least suggestive.

The archaeological evidence in question consists of three burials from early medieval Britain that have been identified with varying degrees of certainty as those of African women on the basis of an examination of their skeletal remains. One of the burials in question was discovered in 2013 at Fairford, Gloucestershire, and has been described as being that of 'a woman, aged between 18 and 24, from Sub-Saharan Africa', with radiocarbon dating indicating that she very probably died at some point between AD 896 and 1025. Another was found in a Late Saxon cemetery at Norwich, although the identification is open to question. And the third and best known is that of a young African woman buried c. 1000 in the Late Saxon cemetery at North Elmham, Norfolk. This last is discussed in detail in Calvin Wells' and Helen Cayton's contribution to the East Anglian Archaeology report on North Elmham, published in 1980, and also in Helen Cayton's 1977 PhD thesis, and whilst the identification was made from skeletal evidence alone (DNA analysis of the North Elmham woman's bones was planned in 2009, but was never carried out due to the relocation of the researcher), it is said to 'leave little doubt' and be 'incontestable'. Needless to say, if some of these identifications can indeed be relied upon, then these three burials are obviously of significant potential interest: although they were found in Britain, not Ireland, they do indicate that at least some people from Africa or of African descent were living and dying in rural and urban communities in the British Isles during the 'Viking Age' (eighth to eleventh centuries). Even though it is impossible to know quite how these specific women ended up in Britain, slavery has frequently been cited as a potential mechanism, and their presence would certainly seem to suggest that the claim that North African people taken captive by the Vikings ended up in the British Isles could have had some basis in reality.

Ruins of a Norman chapel located on the site of the Late Saxon church and cemetery at North Elmham, Norfolk (image: Wikimedia Commons).

The above is about as far as we can go at present. All told, whilst the eleventh-century Fragmentary Annals of Ireland is relatively late in date and often viewed with a degree of suspicion, it seems clear that some elements of its narrative of a Viking adventure in North Africa may well have a basis in real events. There is certainly good evidence to suggest that there was a significant Viking attack on Nakūr, Morocco, in 859 that saw the inhabitants of that city enslaved, and the notion that captives taken by the Vikings from North Africa were carried to Ireland, as the Fragmentary Annals claims, ought not to be summarily dismissed. Not only is there nothing inherently implausible about the notion, especially if we accept that the other aspects of the narrative have a basis in history, but there is also a small amount of archaeological evidence indicative of the presence of Africans in Viking-era Britain, at least, something that is of considerable potential interest in the present context.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2015, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.