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The Schmooze

Jewish Skeletons Found in English Well: Were They Victims of Medieval Persecution?

The people of Norwich, England have found some skeletons — not in their closets, but in a well. And the bones belong to Jews.

The remains of 17 bodies dating to the 12th or 13th centuries were found at the bottom of a well in 2004 during an excavation for the construction of a shopping center, but it was not until recent testing (using DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies) that it was discovered that they belong to Jews who were likely killed as a result of religious persecution.

Eleven of the skeletons belong to children aged 2-15, and the remaining ones are those of adult men and women. Seven skeletons were successfully genetically tested, and five of them appear to have been members of a single Jewish family.

The investigation was conducted by a team headed by forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black, of the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anthropology and Human Identification. Following the Kosovo War, Professor Black worked in the Balkans piecing together the bodies of massacred Kosovan Albanians. For her, this latest investigation is closely related to that difficult project. “We are possibly talking about persecution. We are possibly talking about ethnic cleansing and this all brings to mind the scenario that we dealt with during the Balkan War crimes,” she told the BBC.

Black and her team theorize that the people to whom these remains belong were either murdered or forced to commit suicide. Pictures taken during the well’s excavation suggest that the bodies were thrown in headfirst. It appears that the adults were thrown into the well first, with the children next — the blow cushioned by the adult bodies already inside. There is no evidence from the bone composition or from the carbon dating to suggest that these people died of the Plague or another disease.

Norwich had a considerable Jewish community from around 1135, and records indicate that much of it was located near the well in which the remains were found. Resentment toward Jews grew as they worked in money lending, which they did at the invitation of the King, beginning in the mid-11th century. Anti-Semitic blood libels and massacres of Jews took place in Norwich and other parts of England in the 12th and 13th centuries, leading to the eventual expulsion of Jews from England by Edward I in 1290.

“It changes the story of what we know about the community. We don’t know everything about the community but what we do know is changed by this,” Sophie Cabot, an archeologist and expert on Norwich’s Jewish history, said.

“The Bodies in the Well,” a BBC2 television program about the discovery and investigation of the skeletons, airs today.

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