Skeletons found at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich are those of Jews who were among the victims of an antisemitic massacre linked to the Third Crusade, a genetic study suggests.
It is first peer-reviewed study to analyse ancient DNA from Jewish remains and sheds new light on the origins and medical histories of Jewish communities in Europe.
The genesis of the study goes back to 2004, when construction workers on the Chapelfield shopping centre development unearthed the skeletons of six adults and 11 children. The researchers said the skeletal remains were oddly positioned and mixed up, most likely because they were thrown head-first into the well after death.
The discovery hinted at casualties of famine, disease, murder or warfare. Initial radiocarbon dating of the remains placed the victims’ deaths around the 11th to 12th centuries. This range includes 1190, when Jews in Norwich and other English towns were murdered during antisemitic riots reportedly led by crusaders. As the chronicler Ralph de Diceto described it: “Many of those who were hastening to go to Jerusalem determined first to rise against the Jews before they invaded the Saracens. Accordingly on February 6, all the Jews who were found in their own houses at Norwich were butchered; some had taken refuge in the castle”
Earlier, in 1144, the family of a murdered boy, William of Norwich, claimed the town’s Jews were responsible for his killing — leading to the first documented allegation of the “blood libel” myth that persists to this day.
Significantly, the skeletons were discovered just south of the medieval Jewish quarter, which was the centre of one of England’s principal Jewish communities, with a synagogue and Jewish school.
Nevertheless, it could not be assumed that the remains were of Jews, because the radiocarbon date range also encompassed 1174 when townspeople were killed in the sack of Norwich by the rebel earl Hugh Bigod. Analysis of sections of the victims’ mitochondrial DNA — which is passed down the female line — for a 2011 TV programme indicated that they may have been Jewish but was not conclusive.
To discover the individuals’ origins, the team analysed the whole genomes of six of the skeletons. The results showed that they were almost certainly Ashkenazi Jews. The Ashkenazi Jews, or Ashkenazim, have historic ties to Central and Eastern Europe whereas Sephardi Jews, or Sephardim, have roots in Spain and Portugal.
The mixture of Southern European and Levantine ancestry the team identified in the Norwich victims is consistent with other studies that suggest the ancestors of Ashkenazim may have included Jews of Middle Eastern origin who settled in Italy and intermarried with local people before moving north to the Rhineland and further afield. Historical sources indicate that the Norwich Jewish community’s more immediate ancestors were Jews from Rouen in Normandy who were invited to England by William the Conqueror.
After repeated incidents of antisemitic persecution and violence, the Jews of England were expelled by Edward I in 1290. Jews were only permitted to return under Oliver Cromwell more than 350 years later, when the first settlers were Sephardim.
Among the victims at Norwich, the DNA showed that four were closely related, including three sisters — one aged five to ten, one aged 10-15 and the other a young adult. The analysis inferred the physical traits of a male toddler to include blue eyes and red hair — the latter a feature associated with historical stereotypes of European Jews. Two other individuals were inferred to have had brown eyes, one with dark and one with fair hair.
“This is the first time we’ve had DNA evidence to link these these horrific events to individuals”Dr Selina Brace
The victims were found to carry gene variants linked to genetic disorders for which modern-day Ashkenazi Jewish populations remain at higher risk, including variants linked to cancer predisposition, late puberty and ciliary dyskinesia (affecting the respiratory system). These variants are associated with a population “bottleneck” when a rapid reduction in the Ashkenazi population led to an increase in the number of people carrying otherwise rare mutations. The scientists said it was previously estimated that this bottleneck occurred 500-700 years ago, whereas the remains indicate that it must have predated the Norwich individuals’ deaths in the 12th century.
Revised carbon dating testing indicated that the bodies were deposited between 1161 and 1216, more narrowly consistent than the previous dating with the massacre of 1190. There was no evidence of trauma on the skeletons, beyond broken ribs. However, the researchers said this did not preclude murder by various possible means, including having their throats cut. They added that a lack of skeletal trauma associated with people trying to break a fall suggested that the victims were dead when they were thrown into the well.
Dr Selina Brace, lead author of the study in Current Biology and a specialist in ancient DNA at the Natural History Museum, said: “Prior to this study, it has only been historical records that attested to this antisemitic violence. This is the first time we’ve had DNA evidence to link these these horrific events to actual individuals. It really brings it home to you when you can you see it like that.”
Evolutionary geneticist and co-author Mark Thomas, of University College London, said: “It was quite surprising that the initially unidentified remains filled the historical gap about when certain Jewish communities first formed and the origins of some genetic disorders. Nobody had analysed Jewish ancient DNA before because of prohibitions on the disturbance of Jewish graves. However, we did not know this until after doing the genetic analyses.”
After learning the identity of the remains, the local community arranged a Jewish burial for the victims. “When you study ancient DNA from people who’ve died hundreds to thousands of years ago, you don’t often get to work with a living community at the same time,” said Ian Barnes, an evolutionary geneticist at the Natural History Museum and co-author. “It’s been really satisfying to work with this community on a story that’s so important to them.”
The top image shows persecution of English Jews depicted in the early 14th-century Chronica Roffense, made at Rochester. Photo: British Library