According to a new study, the remains of 17 persons, mostly youngsters, discovered in Norwich, England, in 2004 during a building project are likely those of mediaeval Jews who were killed for their religion.
The dead, according to a genetic study of the bones, were all Ashkenazi Jews, that is, they were descended from Jews who had formed communities in northern Europe during the early mediaeval era, primarily in what is now Germany and France. (After the 11th and 13th centuries, many Ashkenazi eventually migrated from these areas to eastern Europe.) And according to additional studies, crusaders who had vowed to fight Muslims in Jerusalem may have committed the antisemitic slaughter at Norwich that left the dead in the city in 1190.
Religious regulations often forbid disturbing Jewish graves, thus the study provided researchers with a rare opportunity to examine Jewish remains. The study revealed that a “genetic bottleneck” among Ashkenazi Jews probably occurred centuries earlier than assumed.
Mark Thomas, a professor of human evolutionary genetics at University College London, told Live Science that “they weren’t known to be Jewish when they were uncovered.” We conducted the genetic analysis, which is the only reason we are positive they were Jews.
Thomas is one of the senior authors of a study that details the most recent investigation into the remains and was published on August 30 in the journal Current Biology(opens in new tab).
In Norwich, England, the first bones were discovered in 2004 while digging for a new commercial mall. Following the finding, the area underwent a thorough archaeological examination that led to the discovery of a mediaeval well that contained the mixed remains of at least 17 persons.
The remains were kept by the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service for a while. According to BBC News, the victims were reinterred in a Jewish cemetery outside of Norwich in 2013 as a result of rising concerns that they might have been Jewish in light of previous stories of antisemitic murders (opens in new tab).
The remnants were utilised to reconstruct the faces of two of the victims by Liverpool John Moores University professor and anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson.
Christians kill Jews
Ian Barnes, an evolutionary geneticist at the Natural History Museum in London and the study’s principal author, told Live Science that the bones’ initial radiocarbon analysis suggested they were from the 11th or 12th century.
Scientists at first assumed the dead had been rapidly disposed of and that the remains originated from victims of an epidemic illness outbreak or a mass famine, he said.
The most recent research, however, indicates that they all shared a genetic heritage with modern Ashkenazi Jews. And historical studies connect their deaths to a crusader massacre of Jews in Norwich in 1190 that was documented by a churchman named Ralph de Diceto.
Diceto stated in his Imagines Historiarum(opens in new tab), which was written around 1200, “Many of those who were hastening to Jerusalem planned first to rise against the Jews before they invaded the Saracens [a phrase mediaeval Christians used for Muslims]. Accordingly, all the Jews who were discovered in their own homes in Norwich on February 6 [in 1190 AD] were murdered; others had sought safety in the castle.
According to BBC News, there had been a thriving Jewish community in mediaeval Norwich since 1137; many of them had resided close to the well where the victims were discovered. The most recent study revealed that the victims were likely descended from Ashkenazi Jews from Rouen in Normandy who had been invited to settle in England by William the Conqueror after 1066, allegedly so he could collect their taxes in coins rather than the agricultural goods that were customarily given as tax.
Researchers now believe that the 17 people discovered in the well were victims of this violent rampage committed against Jews living in mediaeval England by crusaders sworn to fight in what is now Israel’s Holy Land.
After Christian soldiers defeated Jerusalem’s Muslim rulers during the First Crusade in 1099, many other crusades were undertaken from Europe to the Holy Land in the years that followed, with the final one concluding in the 1290s.
According to Britannica(opens in new tab), such antisemitic atrocities were very regular in England and other parts of Europe during the mediaeval era, and the 1190 massacre of Jews in Norwich especially terrible. The victims discovered in the well included at least 11 kids, three of them were sisters, one between the ages of 5 and 10 and another between the ages of 10 and 15, as well as a young adult. According to Barnes, there was no evidence that any of the bodies found in the well attempted to break their fall, suggesting that they were already dead when they were tossed into it.
The DNA from six of the people discovered in the well was able to be subjected to a comprehensive genomic study by the researchers.
The genomes of those six people revealed they shared the same genetic heritage as many Ashkenazi Jews who are still alive today, which suggests they were also Ashkenazi Jews, Thomas said. However, there is no “genetic test” to identify whether a person is Jewish or not.
The genetics of four people in the Norwich well showed the same frequency of such disorders, despite the fact that there are only a very small number of victims from which to draw such conclusions. He claimed that the modern Ashkenazi population has a higher-than-usual incidence of some genetic disorders, such as Tay-Sachs disease and some hereditary cancers.
According to him, a “genetic bottleneck” most likely brought on by a decline in the population between 600 and 800 years ago was supposed to be the origin of these illnesses. However, given their prevalence in the victims, the genetic bottleneck must have occurred much earlier, maybe as early as the fifth century, during the latter years of the Western Roman Empire.
The findings are significant not only in light of the historical questions surrounding the relics but also in light of the paucity of historical genetic information regarding contemporary Jewish people and the specific genetic illnesses they experience.
In the future, he predicted, “I don’t think there will be a torrent of old Ashkenazi or Jewish genomes, but I think that where more material does become available, it will probably be through a similar route to what we’ve done.”
In other words, they locate human remains when there is no indication that they are Jewish or anything else, then someone conducts genetic testing to determine whether they are.