The Mystery of the Late Anglo-Saxon African and the Confused Forensic Anthropologists

Back to archaeology for a bit. I came across this story from a number of sources yesterday, and having thought about it for a bit, it seems even more confusing and interesting than I had first thought. Back in June, two boys found a human skull in the River Coln at Fairford, Gloucestershire, and subsequently uncovered the majority of the rest of the skeleton. The remains did not belong to a recently deceased individual, and have been reported as having a C14 date of between 896 and 1025 AD, as well as being female and between 18 and 24 years old. However, the curious thing is that the remains have also been identified as belonging to a Sub-Saharan African. In itself, this fact makes for an interesting story and leads to various different interpretations and ideas about why an African woman was in England at this time. The most obvious is that she would have been a slave woman, and the next step would be to carry out some desk-based research of the Early Medieval period in Fairford to see whether their are any records of manor houses or large estates that may have had slaves.

However, the story gets a lot more interesting when it is noted that the forensic examination of the skeleton has not been made available to anyone, and the company that carried out the analysis haven’t made it known what features make them think that the body is that of an African; it doesn’t seem as though any DNA has been taken or any isotope analysis done to narrow down the place of the individual’s origin. And then there’s one other matter, that is best illustrated by a picture of the bones in question:

Fairford skeleton

Image: Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard

Does anything look… out of place? Here’s the image again, with several bits marked:

Fairford skeleton 2


Okay; quite a few bits marked. Let’s start at the beginning…

1. Well. What’s this bone? Two upper arm bones? I think that may be the tibia, which does indeed seem to be absent on the left leg.

2. …I think I need to come back to this one. It’s the best one by far.

3. The ulna seems to be upside down. See also 5.

4. I’m sure that the radius is upside down, as there is the bulb at the bottom that fits into the Glenoid cavity of the scapula. I assume the other arm has been similarly arranged, it’s just I can’t tell on the photo.

5. See 3.

6. The ilium is both upside down, and on the wrong side of the body. Ditto for 7.

7. See 6.

… and then we have the pièce de résistance…

2. That’s the sacrum. As in the bottom of the spinal column. I can only think that someone thought it was perhaps the sternum. But if they did, then they shouldn’t actually be a forensic anthropologist.

I really can’t understand how someone could put a skeleton together so badly- especially considering they are meant to be professionals. Strangely, those in question haven’t yet come forward or made themselves identifiable (another anomaly considering it should have been an anthropological company or department that has done the work, and thus be known to those who contracted them in the first place). I only did a course in forensic anthropology at uni, and i can point out the errors. One bioarchaeologist, Dr Kristina Kilgrove from the University of West Florida, has even set up a blog post asking readers to point out the errors, with many having never had any training. There may be even more errors, but I can’t make them out with the quality of the image. Feel free to post any comments and further thoughts or points I’ve missed, and I’ll follow this story with interest. I’m intrigued what proper analysis reveals about this skeleton, and will post updates as the news becomes available.


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