23rd October 2020:

In the third in our series of articles for Black History Month reviewing sites that have unearthed stories of Black prehistory and history, we revisit the cemetery associated with St Augustine's Church at Stoke Quay in Ipswich.

When OA’s specialists examined over 1,000 skeletons from Stoke Quay, Ipswich, they were not surprised to identify patterns which suggested a highly mobile, diverse, population, including individuals of non-European descent. Having originated as an Anglo-Saxon trading place (or emporium), during the medieval period, Ipswich was one of the country’s major ports. Its population is known from historic documents to have included overseas immigrants from Europe and beyond. However, when biochemical analysis of some of the skeletons was undertaken, a much more complex picture emerged.

The skeletons were excavated in 2012 from St Augustine’s cemetery, by Oxford Archaeology and Pre-Construct Archaeology ahead of a major residential redevelopment at Stoke Quay for Ramboll on behalf of ISG for Genesis Housing Association. St Augustine’s Church was located immediately south of the River Orwell, in one of the poorer suburbs of Ipswich. Following the Dissolution, the church and cemetery fell into disuse and disappeared – the land was in commercial and industrial use up until the current redevelopment. The excavations uncovered 1,142 burials spanning some 600 years, from the late Saxon to late medieval periods. Re-used boat timbers were found in many of the graves, both reflecting Scandinavian burial traditions and suggesting that some of the individuals may have been mariners.


OA and PCA's excavations at Stoke Quay, Ipswich


This connection with the sea was also observed in the skeletons themselves. More specifically, the combination of the groups’ demographic profile, physical characteristics, and disease burden suggest a dynamic population, shaped by long-term migration from diverse geographic locations in the UK and beyond.  Generally, levels of infection were high and there was also possible evidence for diseases which are associated with warm climates, particularly the tropics.

Interestingly some of the skulls possessed mixed and/or Black ancestral features, determined from a visual examination of the facial bones. The analysis, which followed the latest guidelines and standards, was part of a routine examination, undertaken for each skeleton to estimate the sex, age, height and record any evidence of disease or trauma. One of the skeletons, which recently featured on Channel 4’s Bone Detectives, was a 25-35 year old female with facial features which are consistent with Sub-Saharan individuals. Another individual, a 36-45 year old male, had especially distinctive features, attributed to mixed and Black ancestral groups.

There is no doubt that these observations oversimplify the relationship between biological expression and the genetic affinity of these skeletons - no distinct skeletal characteristics correspond  perfectly to a specific ancestral group.


Skull of skeleton 22989 with features consistent with Sub-Saharan African individuals


Isotope analysis, to explore the geographic origins of both individuals, provided another dimension and produced some unexpected results. It appears that the female mentioned above had probably spent their childhood somewhere on the south-east Devonshire coast, Eastern Ireland or, more likely, the Netherlands or Southern France. This is a notable discovery, considering the skeleton’s Sub-Saharan characteristics.

However, perhaps even more surprising was the local signature reflected by the male skeleton, given his strong non-Caucasoid facial features. Whilst this does not prove conclusively that the individual spent their childhood in Ipswich area, it does seem to be a possibility.

Precisely where the individuals came from cannot presently be determined from the science, but the combination of the isotope analysis and the osteological evidence seems to suggest that these individuals had a non-Caucasoid ancestry but a local or at least European upbringing. This may indicate that both individuals were second generation migrants.

These observations provide a compelling insight into the character of the medieval population of St Augustine’s parish. They give it a cosmopolitan character and highlight the diverse society in which these individuals lived. Finally, they highlight important subtleties in the genetic heritage of the population, which are not reflected in the history books.

This extraordinary story has now been published by East Anglian Archaeology in a new book, ‘Excavations at Stoke Quay, Ipswich’ by Richard Brown, Steven Teague, Louise Loe, Berni Sudds and Elizabeth Popescu. The book is available to buy from Oxbow Books (www.oxbowbooks.com).

The Bone Detectives television episode featuring the discoveries at Stoke Quay is still available to view online on demand (https://www.channel4.com/programmes/bone-detectives-britains-buried-secrets).


Skeleton 22989 featured on episode 1, series 2 of Channel 4's Bone Detectives