Saturday 28 December 2019

A man of possible African ancestry buried in Anglo-Scandinavian York

The aim of the following brief note is to direct attention to a burial from a late ninth- to early eleventh-century cemetery in York. The burials here were originally excavated in 1989–90, but an osteological analysis in 2015 suggested that one of the people buried here was a man of possible African or mixed ancestry.

Reconstruction painting of the wooden houses of the Viking-Age city of Jorvik (York), as it might have appeared in the early 10th century (image: York Archaeological Trust, CC BY-NC-SA).

The burial in question is known as SK 3377, which is a well-preserved skeleton of a mature adult male that was buried in a wooden coffin dated via dendrochronology to 'after 892'. This oak coffin comes from a late ninth- to early eleventh-century cemetery that was excavated at 12-18 Swinegate, 14 Little Stonegate and 18 Back Swinegate, York, in 1989–90, this being originally the graveyard of the former St Benet's Church at York (demolished between 1299 and 1307). Around 100 burials have been excavated from this site, half of which were placed in wooden coffins with no metal fittings, and only a single burial within the cemetery was accompanied by grave goods. In this context, SK 3377 doesn't appear to have been treated noticeably different from the majority of the people who were buried there.(1) Seven of the skeletons from this cemetery, including SK 3379, were subsequently examined in 2015 by Katie Keefe and Malin Holst of York Osteoarchaeology. They concluded that the population of this cemetery as a whole showed signs of having lived a physically strenuous life and suffered from poor health, with SK 3379 being just one of a number of people buried here who had evidence for dietary deficiencies, joint disease and crush injuries to their spines. However, an examination of the remains in order to make ancestry determinations suggested that SK 3379 was unusual in one way: unlike the other six individuals examined, Malin Holst and Katie Keefe concluded that he 'may have been of African or mixed ancestry and may have migrated to York or descended from those that did'.(2)

A tableau of fishermen working and talking at Anglo-Scandinavian York, from the Jorvik Viking Centre, York (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Needless to say, the above possibility is of considerable interest. SK 3379 is not, of course, the first person from Late Saxon/Anglo-Scandinavian England to have been identified as of potential 'Sub-Saharan' African ancestry. As was detailed in a previous post, a small number of other burials from this period have been identified with varying degrees of certainty as those of people of African ancestry on the basis of an examination of their skeletal remains. One of these burials 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, although the full details of this burial are unfortunately yet to be published.(3) Perhaps the best known, however, is that of an apparent African woman buried c. 1000 in the Late Saxon cemetery at North Elmham, Norfolk. This burial 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 the identification is said by them to 'leave little doubt' and be 'incontestable', although we do need to be aware that this ancestry determination was made some time ago and without details provided of how it was reached.(4) In addition, there is an interesting body of oxygen isotope evidence drawn from archaeological human teeth for the presence of people in seventh- to ninth-century in eastern Britain who could potentially have grown up in North Africa. In particular, multiple people buried in both the Bamburgh and Ely cemeteries have phosphate oxygen isotope values that might be consistent with them having spent their youth in a warmer and more southerly region such as parts of southernmost Iberia or North Africa. Such a situation would, of course, find support in the often-noted description of Hadrian—the later seventh and early eighth-century Abbot of St Augustine's, Canterbury—as 'a man of African race' by Bede (Historia Ecclesiastica, IV.1), perhaps reflecting an early life spent in Libya Cyrenaica, although in the present context it must be recognised that the above isotopic evidence cannot tell us about the ancestry so much as the geographical origins of these people.(5)

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 addition to such archaeological parallels, attention can also be drawn to the evidence of the eleventh-century Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, which relates the story of a Viking raid on Morocco (Mauritania) in the mid-ninth century that led to the taking of 'a great host' of captives:
Then they brought a great host of them captive with them to Ireland, i.e. those are the black men. 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.(6)
This account was discussed at length in a previous post, and the notion that it reflects real events is supported by Al-Bakrī's Kitāb al-Masālik wa-al-Mamālik, which relates that 'Majūs [Vikings]—God curse them—landed at Nakūr [Nekor, Morocco], in the year 244 (858–9). They took the city, plundered it, and made its inhabitants slaves, except those who saved themselves by flight... The Majūs stayed eight days in Nakūr.'(7) Likewise, the late ninth-century Christian Chronicle of Alfonso III relates that the 'Northman pirates... sailed the sea and attacked Nekur, a city in Mauritania, and there they killed a vast number of Muslims.'(8)

Of course, it does need to be emphasised that there is no reason to directly connect the burials of a small number of people of possible African or mixed ancestry in Late Saxon/Anglo-Scandinavian England with this specific, mid-ninth-century Viking raid on Morocco. Rather, the various accounts of a raid on Morocco are best interpreted as offering support for the plausibility of the sort of movement between North Africa and Britain/Ireland in this period that might have resulted in SK 3379 having 'migrated to York' or been 'descended from those that did', if he was indeed of 'African or mixed ancestry' as Keefe and Holst cautiously suggest. Likewise, we don't need to assume that all such interactions were hostile in the way described in the Fragmentary Annals either, nor that any people of African ancestry who might have been present in Britain at this time were enslaved or descended from enslaved people. Certainly, there is nothing from the burial of SK 3379 himself to offer support for such a conclusion; instead, he appears in both life and death to be similar to the rest of the community buried at St Benet's.

A silver penny minted at York in the name of St Peter of York, c. 921–7, found in Lincolnshire near to Newark (image: PAS).


1.     For details of this burial site and discussions of the material found there, see K. Keefe & M. Holst, Osteological Analysis 12-18 Swinegate, 14 Little Stonegate & 18 Back Swinegate, York, North Yorkshire, York Osteology Report no. 1815 (York, 2015); J. M. McComish, The Pre-Conquest Coffins from 12-18 Swinegate and 18 Back Swinegate, York Archaeological Trust Report no. 2015/46 (York, 2015); S. J. Allen, Wooden Coffins and Grave Furniture from 12–18 Swinegate, 14 Little Stonegate, and 18 Back Swinegate, York (YORYM 1989.28, 1990.28, 1990.1): an Insight Report (York, 2015); and J. L. Buckberry, A Social and Anthropological Analysis of Conversion Period and Later Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, 4 vols. (University of Sheffield PhD Thesis, 2004), vol. 1, pp. 23–5, 185, 217–19.
2.     Keefe & Holst, Osteological Analysis; see especially pp. 1 (quotation), 7–8, on the ancestry determination; my thanks to Malin Holst of the York Osteoarchaeology and the University of York for discussing this burial with me. The remains were analysed using standard methods for the assessment of ancestry in modern forensic anthropology, like those undertaken recently for a significant number of Roman-era burials from York too, using the criteria set out by S. N. Byers, Introduction to Forensic Anthropology (International Edition), 3rd edn (Boston, 2010), pp. 152-65. For the Roman-era studies, see 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, and S. Leach et al, 'A Lady of York: migration, ethnicity and identity in Roman Britain', Antiquity, 84 (2010), 131–45.
3.     M. Archer, 'Fairford schoolboys who found skull are fascinated to hear it dates back 1,000 years', Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard, 20 September 2013, newspaper report, available online.
4.     P. Wade-Martins, East Anglian Archaeology Report No. 9: Excavations in North Elmham Park 1967–72, 2 vols. (Gressenhall, 1980), vol. 2, pp. 259–62, 317–9; H. M. Clayton, Anglo-Saxon Medicine within its Social Context (University of Durham PhD Thesis, 1977), pp. 224–6.
5.     The phosphate oxygen isotope values recorded from the seventh- to ninth-century cemetery at Bamburgh (the 'royal city' of the Northumbrians) and the seventh-century cemetery at Ely both show the presence of multiple people buried there with values significantly above the maximum values expected for people who grew up in the British Isles (often defined as 18.6‰ δ¹⁸Op, although people on the far western margins of Britain and Ireland could theoretically have values up to 19.2‰ δ¹⁸Op) or, indeed, anywhere in Europe: see further this previous post, especially footnote 2. So, at Ely two people buried there had results of 19.7‰ δ¹⁸Op and 19.9‰ δ¹⁸Op, whilst at Bamburgh two people had results of 20.1‰ δ¹⁸Op and 20.3‰ δ¹⁸Op and a further five people had results ranging from 19.3‰ δ¹⁸Op to 19.5‰ δ¹⁸Op. See on these sites S. Lucy et al, 'The burial of a princess? The later seventh-­century cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely', Antiquity, 89 (2009), 81–141; 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 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. On Hadrian's origins, see for example B. Bischoff & M. Lapidge, Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 84–92.
6.     J. N. Radner (ed. & trans.), Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin, 1978), FA 330, pp. 120–1.
7.     A. Christys, Vikings in the South: Voyages to Iberia and the Mediterranean (London, 2015), p. 54.
8.     V. E. Aguirre, The Viking Expeditions to Spain During the 9th Century, Mindre Skrifter No. 30 (Odense, 2013), p. 21.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2019, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.