North African man found buried in medieval Ipswich

It is not typically known as a popular destination for overseas visitors, even in an age of readily accessible and affordable travel.  So quite why any anyone would choose to trek half way across the world to witness Medieval Ipswich is certainly something of a mystery.

Yet this is precisely what scientists and historians are attempting to uncover following the discovery of the remains of a North African man in the Suffolk town in the year 1190.

It is thought the findings, to be broadcast on Thursday as part of the BBC documentary History Cold Case, are evidence of the first known black person in Britain, predating the previous assumption by 150 years.

The skeleton was found to be of African descent, with isotopic analysis of material from the man’s teeth and thigh bone pointing to North African origins in particular.  Radiocarbon dating was used to determine that he died sometime between 1190 and 1300.

However scientists remained perplexed as to how the man ended up being buried in the cemetery of a friary as this denotes two things; that he must have converted to Christianity, and that he must have been a person of wealth.

It is unlikely that the man was a slave due the fact that his remains showed he had strong muscles and was quite healthy until his death. Also, while the Romans were often known to use Africans as workers across the world, their empire had fallen some time before.   

While it is improbable that we will ever know exactly why he, or any person of sound mind and body for that matter, chose to live in Ipswich, the most likely explanation is that he was a trader on a route opened up after the Crusades involved in the shipping of materials of some sort to the port town of Ipswich.