Beachy Head Lady

The following article appears in the September 2016 edition of the Parish Magazine. The Village Fete was held on Saturday 16 July.

Professor Mary Beard, author, historian and presenter of some of the BBC’s most inspiring documentaries, seemed an unlikely fete-opener – as she herself admitted – but she was here for a more significant reason too. You’ll see why if you look at the plaque pictured below, which was presented at the fete to the chair of the Parish Council by Jo Seaman, Eastbourne Heritage Manager.

It’s one of over 20 specially designed  BBC Black History plaques unveiled at locations across Britain, former colonies and the Commonwealth. The plaques will record and celebrate people and events that are pivotal to the TV series ‘A Black History of Britain’, providing enduring symbols of the series. In one of these Mary Beard and our own Beachy Head lady will appear.

Jo was responsible for analysing some 300 skeletons in the basement of the Town Hall. One in particular caught his attention: the well preserved skeleton of a woman aged about 20, 4’11” tall, in good health. Unfortunately there seemed no evidence as to where exactly she had been found, despite extensive research. In the end it was decided to test her anyway, to see what would be revealed.

An early task fell to a top facial reconstruction expert, who quickly realised that here was no Caucasian. Our Eastbourne lady had distinctive sub-Saharan African features, that is, from beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire during which she lived - radio carbon dating revealing that she was living around 200 -250AD. So how did she come to be here? Some believe that she may have been either the wife or mistress of a local official at a nearby Roman villa or that she was a merchant trading wares in Europe and chose to settle in the country. She did not appear to be a slave as her skeleton was in good condition with no signs of hard labour.

It is unprecedented to find human remains from Sub-Saharan Africa in our area. From various pieces of recent scientific evidence we understand that she was born locally, or at least lived here from an early age. Further research revealed that in 1891 three bodies were unearthed in a Roman cemetery, west of Beachy Head in East Dean. One of the skeletons was wearing copper bangles which were kept in the museum, but were subsequently destroyed during the bombing in the war. Could one of these have been our carefully interred ‘Beachy Head lady’ – if so, a lady of some standing? The discovery of the likely site of this cemetery could soon throw more light on our lady’s origins.

Reconstruction of the Beachy Head Lady

Reconstruction of the Beachy Head Lady

PlaqueThe Plaque presented to the Village at the 2016 Village fete.
Initially located on the Village Green, it is now displayed on the outside wall of the Pavillion in the Recreation Ground.