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Excavations at London Bridge City, Southwark, 1999

A Tudor Banana


A near-complete banana skin from a layer datable to 1500 or earlier is a unique and extraordinary survival. It predates by nearly 150 years the first written description of bananas seen in Britain ­ an account of a bunch imported from Bermuda in 1633 and hung up to ripen in the shop of one Thomas Johnson, a herbalist in Snow Hill, London.

In Tudor times fresh fruit was believed to be unhealthy and so was treated with suspicion, whereas cooked, preserved and dried fruits were eaten widely. Many varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries, mulberries, blackberries and wild strawberries were cultivated here. Oranges, lemons, pomegranates and almonds were imported from southern Europe, together with dried fruit such as raisins, figs, prunes and dates. Bananas will have been far more exotic imports than any of these. Even in the 19th century they were regarded as rare luxuries.

The find stands at the very beginning of the Great Age of Discovery and should perhaps be seen in the context of London's wide-ranging contacts with Spain and Portugal. Fifteenth-century explorers will have observed bananas growing in west Africa, and this may have been been brought home by one of them either as a curiosity or as a gift for a wealthy patron.

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