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Jewish Bodies Found in Medieval Well in Norwich

Date: 26/06/2011

Location: Norwich


The find of the remains of 17 sets of skeletal remains in a medieval well in Norwich is a dramatic discovery, particularly at it is now claimed that they are the Jewish victims of a medieval pogrom on the basis of DNA evidence and the known history of violence against Jews in the 12th and 13th centuries in Norwich and elsewhere.

At JTrails, we look forward to seeing further detailed and hard evidence for these claims, which if verified, would constitute one of the most important finds in medieval Anglo-Jewish archaeology.

However, the sensational conclusions that have been presented so far, seem to have been reached by some significant inferential leaps, vaulting large gaps in the physical evidence and by appeal to the negative stereotypical generalisation that the Jews were hated and attacked in the 12th and 13th century, even though the worst depredations on the community were largely after 1250 and many Jews in England could live an entire life-time without witnessing either murder or massacre in their own town. The archaeologists also make unhelpful comparisions of the Norwich finds to 'ethnic cleansing' in the 20th Century, when in fact persecution of Jews in the medieval period was for religious reasons - racial anti-Semitism was a 20th century creation. It hardly helped this impression when the archaeologists seemed keen to point out that one of the skeletons 'had a big nose and ears' which one supposes was to imply the Jewishness of the remains, by implicit appeal to Jewish stereo-types. While these conclusions may be true, they may not be provable, and unless they are, there are other scenarios (and not just the Plague and Interdict scenarios) that should be considered and which may be as likely, or more likely.

It is important to point out that of 17 skeletal remains, only 7 returned DNA profiles, so we do not know what the origins of the other remains were. However, in the programme, the geneticist presenting the findings to the cold case team stated that 2 of the skeletal remains yielded DNA common in Europe at the time - that is to say they were in all probability local non-Jews, probably Christians. Of the 5 that were stated to be Jewish, the geneticist stated that 6% of the European population in this period had this DNA. At this time the Jewish population of England and Europe was only around 1% of the population, so the implication is that some non-Jews or Christians, had this DNA also. By the end of the programme, the cold case team has seemingly edited out all reference to the non-Jewish skeletal remains in a dishonest, misleading and exploitative summary of the evidence, which was presented as a certain and unchallengable conclusion. The emotional reaction shots of the 'community' at the end was deliberatley set up and staged by the producers who clearly had decided to create an effective, if manipulative conclusion to the documentary.

Our own work in identifying, possible medieval Jewish human remains, and with medieval Jewish artefacts, high-lights the real difficulty in proving the Jewish provenance of such remains or artefacts and the importance of using a wide range of multi-disciplinary techniques and evidence before arriving at conclusions. Also, historically there is a tendency to ascribe the unusual, or unexplained, as 'Jewish' and there is a continuing and unhelpful tendency to see Jewish history through the stereotypical view of medieval murder and mayhem.

We hope that if the remains are established as Jewish, that our example of the reburial of medieval Jewish bones in Northampton last year, following negotiations with the Northampton Jewish community, heritage organisations, the Borough Council, the United Synagogue, and other stakeholders, will be followed, especially as the bones appear to have been fully and exhaustively examined and it would be inappropriate to place them on display.

BBC Web-Site:

'The remains of 17 bodies found at the bottom of a medieval well in England could have been victims of persecution, new evidence has suggested.

The most likely explanation is that those down the well were Jewish and were probably murdered or forced to commit suicide, according to scientists who used a combination of DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies in their investigation.

The skeletons date back to the 12th or 13th Centuries at a time when Jewish people were facing persecution throughout Europe.

They were discovered in 2004 during an excavation of a site in the centre of Norwich, ahead of construction of the Chapelfield Shopping Centre. The remains were put into storage and have only recently been the subject of investigation.

Seven skeletons were successfully tested and five of them had a DNA sequence suggesting they were likely to be members of a single Jewish family.

DNA expert Dr Ian Barnes, who carried out the tests, said: "This is a really unusual situation for us. This is a unique set of data that we have been able to get for these individuals.

"I am not aware that this has been done before - that we have been able to pin them down to this level of specificity of the ethnic group that they seem to come from."


'Pictures taken at the time of excavation suggested the bodies were thrown down the well together, head first.

A close examination of the adult bones showed fractures caused by the impact of hitting the bottom of the well. But the same damage was not seen on the children's bones, suggesting they were thrown in after the adults who cushioned the fall of their bodies.

The team had earlier considered the possibility of death by disease but the bone examination also showed no evidence of diseases such as leprosy or tuberculosis.

Giles Emery, the archaeologist who led the original excavation, said at first he thought it might have been a plague burial, but carbon dating had shown that to be impossible as the plague came much later.

And historians pointed out that even during times of plague when mass graves were used, bodies were buried in an ordered way with respect and religious rites.'


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