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Beachy Head Lady: sub-Saharan African living in Roman Britain

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Here is an intriguing story from 2014 that I somehow missed: the Beachy Head Lady, a mysterious sub Saharan African living in Roman Eastbourne.

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The story begins during a study known as the Eastbourne Ancestors project near the south coast of England. The study examined 300 sets of previously-ignored human remains, hopefully gaining more insight into the lives of the people. These seemingly-unremarkable remains had been stored in the basement and were mostly from two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. Most of the remains were excavate in the 1990s, but there were specimens from the 1890s. 

One set of remains, however, was different from the others.

Eastbourne Museums Heritage Officer Jo Seaman recounts, “During that process we came across two boxes which said ‘Beachy Head, something to do with 1956 or 1959’, and that was about it. We opened it up and inside there was a very well-preserved human skeleton.”

1.      Initial inspection by an osteoarchaeologist reported that the remains belonged to a young female who was about five feet tall. The bones were then sent for routine reconstruction.

2.      Caroline Wilkinson, an expert in reconstruction, was asked to perform a forensic facial reconstruction. Upon seeing the skull, she immediately asked, “Oh my, you realize you’ve got a sub-Saharan African here?”

This, of course, prompted further interest and studies.

3.      Radiocarbon dating was done. It established that the Beachy Head Lady lived around 200 to 250 AD. There are other examples of Africans at this date in Britain (such as the Ivory Bangle Lady found in York). The Beachy Head Lady, however, was unusual because Sub-Saharan Africa was not part of the Roman Empire.

4.       Isotope analysis was also utilized. It indicated that the Beachy Head Lady grew up in southeast England.  (Thru the isotope analysis of teeth and possibly bone, researchers would be able to determine that the Beachy Head Lady consumed a diet derived from that area during her earlier growth and development. See the second video below for a good explanation of isotope analysis.)

Jo Seaman concluded: "Whether that means that she's first generation we don't know. She could possibly have been born in Africa and brought over here at a very young age, but it's just as likely that she was born here. This is a fantastic discovery for the south coast. We know this lady was around 30 years old, grew up in the vicinity of what is now East Sussex, ate a good diet of fish and vegetables, her bones were without disease and her teeth were in good condition.”




Summary: The finding of the Beachy Head Lady skeleton generated great interest.

This is another example of the use of science and various means of investigation to fill in the parts of a previously unknown, but fascinating history. One can only imagine why this sub-Saharan woman lived in Roman Britain.


guy also known as gaius







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One can only imagine why this sub-Saharan woman lived in Roman Britain.

You seem to think that racial diversity is a modern phenomenon? Britain has a very long history of immigration and inclusion that isn't well covered in histories. The Roman occupation was a period when such things were even more prevalent. Slavery no doubt had a large part to play in that, but so did opportunity or military service.

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Thank you for reading my post. 

My guess is that a sub-Saharan person's presence in Roman Britain reflected the wide trade network that existed beyond the Roman Empire. I've written before about the potential extent of trade and interaction that existed, for example, with India and China:

I would not, therefore, be too surprised if they were able to discover evidence of visitors from China and India in ancient Rome. I would be more surprised, however, to find a traveler from China in the more distant reaches of the empire, such as Roman Britain.

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China made a few instances of contact, but only on the eastern fringes. Rome is supposed to have made one diplomatic visit to China and a Roman ship is known to have reached their shores. One chinese gentleman was ordered to contact Rome and ask for military assistance against barbarian raiders. He reached the Persian Gulf and asked if he could reach Rome by sea. Yes, he was told, but you have to sail around Africa. The sailors gave him detailed advice on how to prepare for such a voyage. Makes you wonder how they knew.

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