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Beachy Head Lady: Facial reconstruction of 3rd Century African Briton

a photo of a reconstruction of an African lady
Written by Oadeye

a photo of a reconstruction of an African lady

Beachy Head Lady

The featured picture is that of the first ever known female African Briton in history. Earlier Africans came as Roman soldiers to pacify Britons. Her remains were found at Beachy Head, Eastbourne in South Sussex, and accordingly, she was given the name “Beachy Head Lady“. It has been identified that she originated from Sub-Saharan Africa and that she lived somewhere between 200 and 245 AD in the middle of the Roman British era.

Beachy Head is a chalk headland in Southern England, close to the town of Eastbourne

The skeleton was first discovered in Beachy Head (pictured) in 1953, and she is thought to have lived around AD245 - the middle of the Roman period in Britain

During an excavation in the Anglo-Saxon cemetery in 1953, the remains of Beachy Head Lady were discovered in perfectly good condition along with around 300 sets of human remains. Nothing was done about the remains until recent times when Archaeologist Jo Seamen decided to re-examine the excavated remains. The Eastbourne museum collaborated with the University of Dundee and large amounts of money were invested in finding out as much information as possible about those human remains. An osteoarchaeologist performed a thorough inspection of the skeletons. Radio carbon dating, radio-isotope analysis and other scientific tests were performed on the remains of 12 individuals to examine their bones and teeth for trace elements absorbed from water and food during the individuals’ lifetime. These examinations gave information on their place of origin, their age, gender, diet, state of health and in some cases, the method by which they died.

Through examination, Beachy Head Lady was found to be about five feet tall, ate a good diet of fish and vegetables, her bones were healthy and her teeth were still in excellent condition, but when her jaw was X-rayed, it was found that she was missing her wisdom teeth. It is believed that she grew up in the region that is now East Sussex and that she died when she was around 30 years old but there was no evidence of disease or wounds or any indicators to help determine the cause of death. A DNA analysis could give more information about how she died.

The reconstruction of Beachy Head Lady’s face was done by one of Britain’s best reconstructors, Caroline Wilkinson from the University of Dundee. Upon seeing the girl’s structure and remains, she immediately identified her as a sub-Saharan African, which was later confirmed by two other experts. As they were recreating her face using craniofacial reconstruction techniques, features of her skull clearly displayed her African origins. Then, with 75% accuracy to a couple of millimeters provided by the latest 3D reconstruction technology, they finally managed to recreate the face of a woman who lived about 2,000 years ago.

The radio carbon dating confirmed that the period she lived in was a Roman period around 250 AD, but this was rather rare and unusual. North Africa was part of the Roman Empire, the Beachy Head Lady however, was sub-Saharan African which means that she was from the south, beyond the Roman Empire. It is thought that she could have been born in Africa then brought over to south-east England at a young age, but it is more likely that she was born in England.

Speculations and theories around her social status and whether or not she was a slave remain unconfirmed since neither her grave nor articles buried with her were seen. She could have been a slave or a servant, but her skeleton was very well preserved and she her remains were virtually complete and in good condition which shows that she was treated well in the grave. She could have been a wife of an official or the mistress of a powerful Roman British. It could also be that she was the daughter of a successful sub-Saharan African trader who settled in Europe. One thing is sure though, her presence at a time dating as far back as 1800 years ago indicates the presence of Africans in England centuries before slavery, which debunks the first theory that she could have been a slave.

Beachy Head Lady was not the first African to be found in England. In fact, in 1901 the remains of another African woman, the Ivory Bangle Lady, was discovered in the city of Sycamore Terrace in York. She is thought to be a mixed-race lady of a high-status from Roman York. The Ivory Bangle Lady was found buried in a lavish stone coffin with some articles of jewelry and expensive grave goods including jet and elephant ivory earrings, pendants, beads, a glass mirror, a blue glass jug and elephant ivory bracelets after which she was given the name, the Ivory Bangle Lady. Examination of her remains concluded that she lived in the 4th century, which is one century after the Beachy Head Lady. Her skeleton and the articles found in her grave are displayed in The Yorkshire Museum, the section of “Meet the People of The Empire“.

https://www.yorkshiremuseum.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2014/05/web-Ivory-Bangle-Lady-copyright-Aaron-Watson-University-of-Reading-2.jpg

Ivory Bangle Lady

Bracelet made of different size blue glass beads One black and one white bangle Roman blue glass jug with ornate handle

Articles found in the grave of the Ivory Bangle Lady

Apart from both ladies being of African descent, they were both found in prestigious British towns, which proves that not only did Sub-Saharan Africans travel extensively through trade, but that they were also living more prosperous lives than many others in their time.

Beachy Head Lady’s reconstructed face was featured in the Eastbourne Ancestors exhibition by the Eastbourne Borough Council’s museum along with a display of all her bones and a number of other reconstructions. The exhibition was open to the general public.

The Heritage Lottery Fund granted the museum £72,000 for the Eastbourne Ancestors project. The project aims to identify the human remains found in the Anglo-Saxon cemetery -of which most are Anglo-Saxon from about 1500 years ago, while some are Neolithic from about 4000 years ago- and to gather up enough information on them to be able to tell their stories that date back to prehistory giving insights on their age, gender and culture just as they did with Beachy Head Lady.

Bibliography

  • “Centuries old Beachy Head Lady’s face revealed”. BBC News. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  • Zoe Mintz. “Face Of ‘Beachy Head Lady’ Revealed, Roman Era Woman Is A ‘Fantastic Discovery’ “. International Business Times. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  • “Beachy Head Lady was young sub-Saharan Roman with good teeth, say archaeologists”. culture24.org.uk. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  • Rebecca Gowland. Britannia 48 (2017) 177-194 doi:10.1017/S0068113X17000125 Embodied Identities in Roman Britain: A Bioarchaeological Approach.
  • ‘Written in Bone’: New discoveries about the Lives and Burials of Four Roman Londoners. Rebecca C Redfern, Michael Marshall, Katherine Eaton, Hendrik Poinar. Britannia 48 (2017) 253-277 doi:10.1017/S0068113X17000216.

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Oadeye

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