Free public lecture in Preston will reveal the 'Love Island' nature of English medieval history as shown by UCLan discoveries

A free public lecture is being held in Preston next week to discuss groundbreaking DNA discoveries which highlight the ‘Love Island’ nature of English history.
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What is the free event?

University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) Professor Duncan Sayer will be giving his inaugural professorial lecture next Wednesday (November 9), between 12:00-13:30 in the Greenbank Lecture Theatre, on UCLan’s Preston campus.

It is entitled ‘Love Island, the first millennium AD: new DNA evidence allows us to see the personal story of early Anglo-Saxon migration into England’, and will demonstrate how artefacts and genetic samples retrieved from individual burials can be used to tell the stories of early Anglo-Saxon people and explore the biological impact of the movement of people.

UCLan Professor Duncan Sayer will be giving his first professional lecture next week on his fascinating medieval DNA discoveries.UCLan Professor Duncan Sayer will be giving his first professional lecture next week on his fascinating medieval DNA discoveries.
UCLan Professor Duncan Sayer will be giving his first professional lecture next week on his fascinating medieval DNA discoveries.
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Professor Sayer will present findings from a recent international project which analysed hundreds of early medieval graves from across Europe in order to investigate post-Roman migration into England. He will particularly discuss his analysis of 210 individuals from nine cemeteries in the East of England, illustrating how this data has moved the conversation away from ‘what was the scale of migration’ to ‘what was its impact’.

There will be discussion around what DNA can tell us about the people themselves, and how cultural change played out at national, regional, and local levels. UCLan says “the stories told by these burial sites make the past personable and allow us to explore it in different scales and in a variety of ways”.

People can book a slot to attend here.

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What were the groundbreaking findings?

UCLan and Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology recently led the largest ever early medieval population study, which revealed a host of individual and family stories, after experts analysed DNA from more than 460 skeletons across 37 archaeological sites. These results were published in Nature and a special issue of Current Archaeology last month.

Using next generation genetic sequencing, the study provides unprecedented insight about migration, tradition, and loss in England’s early medieval families, impossible to see before. The analysis found that about 76 per cent of the ancestry in early medieval English populations originated from what is today northern Germany and southern Scandinavia, providing strong evidence for mass migration into the British Isles after the end of Roman occupation, and all the cultural changes that followed.

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One of the most striking individual stories from the study is that of a young girl buried in early 7th-century Kent, dubbed 'Updown Girl'. She was buried in much the same way as the other early medieval individuals laid to rest at Updown, however new genetic research highlights that her ancestry was very different.

33 per cent of Updown Girl’s DNA points to West African ancestry, where as two sisters found buried close by had predominantly continental Northern European ancestry. They were likely Updown Girl’s great aunts, and each was buried with objects that indicated they were an affluent family. The fact that both women and the girl were buried in the same fashion and in proximity indicates that despite her different ancestry, the girl was treated as much a part of this family as her elders.

Current Archaeology's editor Carly Hilts said: “The exciting thing about this study is how it brings long-forgotten human stories to life, revealing otherwise invisible family relationships and intrepid journeys made centuries ago, and shedding light on questions of migration, integration, and how burial customs varied.”

You can read more of the complex personal stories found in the study here.

Summarising the significance of the project, Professor Duncan Sayer: “There’s the macro story here – the fact that we have conducted the largest ancient DNA projects in Europe, providing completely new insights into one the most difficult areas of British history to explore because of such limited source material. The research is a breakthrough: it challenges our perceptions and understanding of ancient England, showing how pivotal migration is to who we are, and for the first time allows us to explore community histories in new ways.

“Then there’s the personal elements of the research. Our work shows that this migration cannot be understood as one single event; rather, it’s made up of many different threads – of individual people and families adapting to new circumstances across the regions of Britain. It is amazing being able to weave those threads together to create the fabric of their stories, and in doing so, the rich and complex tapestry of our own past.”