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'New insights into a significant historical crime'

DNA analysis suggests bodies found in UK well are victims of 1190 antisemitic attack

Study published in scientific journal uses radiocarbon dating and genome sequencing, comparing to genetic data from modern Jews, to match remains to medieval massacre in Norwich

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

The reconstructed faces of a male and a child discovered in the well in Norwich, UK, believed to date back to 1190 CE. (Professor Caroline Wilkinson/Natural History Museum)
The reconstructed faces of a male and a child discovered in the well in Norwich, UK, believed to date back to 1190 CE. (Professor Caroline Wilkinson/Natural History Museum)

A new research study suggests that remains found in a mass grave discovered in a medieval well in Norwich, England, were the victims of an infamous antisemitic attack in 1190 CE.

The study, published on Tuesday in the Current Biology scientific journal, is based on DNA testing of the remains that were discovered in 2004 during construction work on a shopping mall.

The 17 bodies that were found were identified in 2011 by researchers as likely belonging to one Jewish family of Ashkenazi origin.

The new study used radiocarbon dating of the bones as well as analysis of the pottery fragments found in the well to suggest that the bodies were “part of a historically attested episode of antisemitic violence on 6 February 1190 CE,” the researchers said.

Of the 17 individuals discovered, six had well-preserved enough DNA to test and sequence. The results suggested that they had been alive between 1161 and 1216. The findings also indicated that three of them were sisters, and others were likely also related.

The massacre was carried out against the town’s Jewish community by people heading on the Third Crusade, spurred by decades of antisemitic conspiracy theories and blood libels.

“I’m delighted and relieved that 12 years after we first started analyzing the remains of these individuals, technology has caught up and helped us to understand this historical cold case of who these people were and why we think they were murdered,” said Dr. Selina Brace, a specialist at the Natural History Museum in London and the lead author on the study.

Researchers in the study also discovered that the genetic makeup of Ashkenazi Jews “was shaped before the 12th century, earlier than had previously been thought.”

The scientists involved extracted DNA from the remains and compared it to samples taken from modern Ashkenazi Jews.

“When you study ancient DNA from people who’ve died several hundreds to thousands of years ago, you don’t often get to work with the living community at the same time,” said study co-author Professor Ian Barnes in a statement. “It’s been really satisfying to work with the community on a story that’s important to them.”

The study noted that this research was the first to investigate ancient DNA linked to the Jewish community — largely because of Jewish law prohibiting disturbing human remains.

“No genomes from known Jewish individuals are currently available from the medieval period or earlier, largely because exhumation and scientific testing of Jewish remains are prohibited,” the scientists wrote.

Professor Mark Thomas, a co-author on the study, said that the researchers “did not know [the remains] were likely Jewish until after doing the genetic analyses.”

The study addresses such religious and ethical concerns, noting that following the first indications that the bodies belonged to members of the Jewish community, “subsequent analyses were conducted with the cooperation and support of the Norwich Hebrew Congregation, and with the approval of the Office of the Chief Rabbi.”

The scientists noted that the remains “were reburied in 2013 at the Jewish cemetery in Norwich” and accompanied by a commemorative plaque.

The findings of the study, the researchers wrote, “provide new insights into a significant historical crime, into Ashkenazi population history, and into the origins of genetic diseases associated with modern Jewish populations.”

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