Researchers studying human remains that were discovered in a medieval well in Norwich have said that they are the bones of Jews who may have been murdered in an antisemitic massacre.
The DNA of these seventeen skeletons, first found in 2004, may now enable researchers, who published their findings in the journal Current Biology, to find out new information about the medical history of Jews in Europe. It may also allow historians to identify the victims of a pogrom written about by the contemporary writer, Ralph de Diceto.
The account describes how, in February 1190, crusaders stopped in Norwich on their way to Jerusalem, and massacred “all the Jews who were found in their own houses.”
The bodies were first found eighteen years ago by a group of construction workers.
Using recent advances in genetics, the genomes of six of the bodies – who were mostly children at the time of their deaths – are being analysed. These samples are the oldest Jewish genomes to have ever been sequenced.
This may indicate that the origins of Ashkenazi Jews date back a few centuries earlier than the commonly-accepted account.
Once the researchers had established to whom the remains belonged, the local community organised a formal Jewish burial for them.
The research was co-authored by Professor Mark Thomas from University College London and the evolutionary geneticist, and Merit Researcher at London’s Natural History Museum, Ian Barnes.
Dr Barnes said: “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. It’s been really satisfying to work with this community on a story that’s so important to them.”