Jewish bodies found in medieval well in Norwich

Graphic showing the skeletons in the well There is evidence the children were thrown down the well after the adults

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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."

'Ethnic cleansing'

The team has been led by forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black, of the University of Dundee's Centre for Anthropology and Human Identification.

Find out more

The Cold Case team: Professor Sue Black, Dr Xanthe Mallett and Professor Caroline Wilkinson
  • History Cold Case: The Bodies in the Well will be on BBC Two at 2100 BST on Thursday 23 June 2011
  • Professor Sue Black, Dr Xanthe Mallett and Professor Caroline Wilkinson will delve deeper into the mystery and attempt to recreate the faces of those found in the well

Professor Black, who went to the Balkans following the Kosovo war - where her job was to piece together the bodies of massacred Kosovan Albanians - said this discovery had changed the direction of the whole investigation.

Regarding the nature of the discovery, Professor Black said: "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."

Eleven of the 17 skeletons were those of children aged between two and 15. The remaining six were adult men and women.

"In terms of the brutality of the ethnic cleansing, it was thought women and children quite frankly weren't worth wasting the bullets on," added Professor Black.

"Pregnant women were bayoneted because that way you got rid of a woman because that wasn't important and you got rid of the next generation because you didn't want them to survive. So I know what sort of pattern I am looking for."

Cushioned fall

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

Medieval Jewish History

1066: The Norman Conquest opens the way to Jewish immigration. The monarchy needs to borrow money and Christians are forbidden to lend money at interest. London, Lincoln and York become centres for substantial Jewish populations.

1100s: Resentment against the Jewish community grows over their perceived wealth and belief they killed Jesus. The "blood libels" - Jews are accused of the ritual murder of Christian children.

1190: Many Jewish people massacred in York. In Norwich they flee to the city's castle for refuge. Those who stay in their homes are butchered.

1230s: Executions in Norwich after an allegation a Christian child was kidnapped.

1272: Edward I comes to the throne and enforces extra taxes on the Jewish community.

1290: Edward I expels the Jews en masse after devising a new form of royal financing using Christian knights to fill the coffers.

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.

Norwich had been home to a thriving Jewish community since 1135 and many lived near the well site. But there are records of persecution of Jews in medieval England including in Norwich (see fact box).

Sophie Cabot, an archaeologist and expert on Norwich's Jewish history, said the Jewish people had been invited to England by the King to lend money because at the time, the Christian interpretation of the bible did not allow Christians to lend money and charge interest. It was regarded as a sin.

So cash finance for big projects came from the Jewish community and some became very wealthy - which in turn, caused friction.

"There is a resentment of the fact that Jews are making money... and they are doing it in a way that doesn't involve physical labour, things that are necessarily recognised as work... like people feel about bankers now," said Ms Cabot.

The findings of the investigation represented a sad day for Norwich.

Ms Cabot added: "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."

History Cold Case: The Bodies in a Well will be on BBC Two at 2100 BST on Thursday 23 June 2011 and afterwards in the UK on BBC iPlayer.

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