Experts Find Rare Romani DNA In Norwich Anglo Saxon Skeleton

By Sarah Morley | 12 May 2006
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shows the remaons of skeleton in situ in an archeaological dig

The recent discovery of Romani DNA in an Anglo Saxon skeleton has made experts re-think the nature of the city's early population. Picture courtesy Sophie Cabot. © HEART

Experts from Norfolk Archaeology Unit based at Norwich Castle have discovered a rare form of mitochondrial DNA identified as Romani in a skeleton discovered during excavations in a large area of Norwich for the expansion of the castle mall.

The DNA was found in an 11th century young adult male skeleton, and with the first recorded arrival of the Romani gene in this country put at 500 years later, historians may need to re-think the ethnic mix of the city's early population.

Norfolk Archaeological Unit’s lead archaeologist on the dig was Brian Ayres. He told the 24 Hour Museum: “The bones were of a late Saxon Christian. We know this because it was found in a graveyard associated with the church.”

Brian was on the scene when they discovered the DNA in the bones of the young Saxon male - out of the 59 skeletons sampled. Though the excavation was done around the early 90’s the results of the DNA testing has only recently been published to a specialist audience.

DNA testing is a completely revolutionary way of testing and dating bones to find out their origins. Modern methods only recently discovered allow for lots of new links to be made, such as finding where an individual originated from through their genes.

Extracting DNA from ancient bones is a complicated procedure involving removing the DNA from the tooth pulp as the hard tooth enamel preserves the gene. This form of mitochondrial DNA is passed down the female line and the identified gene is only found in the descendants of Romani. According to DNA records the first recorded Romani Gene found in England was in the 16th Century.

shows an aerial phtograph of an archaeological excavation with trenches, portacabins and vehicles

Extensive archaeological excavations have unearthed both Roman and Anglo-Saxon finds in and around Norwich. © Norwich City Council

The find is exciting because it paints a more diverse picture of ancient Norwich. Although Norwich has a rich history of cultural diversity, the discovery of first recorded Romani Gene in the country points to new levels of diversity.

“This exciting find emphasises a more cosmopolitan Anglo-Scandinavian society,” explained Brian who went on to say not only does this find show Norwich as an early multi-ethnic society but it gives a wider indication of a more fluid world in the 11th Century, where humans were constantly moving from country to country.

Romani people have a bloody history of persecution, murder and banishment in almost every country they entered. They were accused of witchcraft and almost every crime imaginable. They originated from the ancient warrior classes of North India and are closely linked to the culture of the Punjabi people, also of North India.

The Romani people are known to have been in Byzantine Empire in the 10th century, so it is thought that the only way the Romani Gene could be found in this country so early is if the previous historical records are mistaken.

Another possibility is that if the Anglo-Saxons were also in Byzantium in the 10th century, relations between the Anglo Saxons and the Romani people may have led to the spread of the Romani Gene to Norwich, England.

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Sarah Morley is the 24 Hour Museum/Norwich HEART Student Writer in Norwich. Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust is the groundbreaking initiative to regenerate, manage and promote one of the most remarkable heritage resources in the UK and in Europe.

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