In 2004, construction workers in the English city of Norwich unearthed human skeletal remains that led to a historical mystery: at least 17 bodies at the bottom of a medieval well. Using archaeological records, historical documents and ancient DNA, researchers have now identified the individuals as a group of Ashkenazi Jews who may have been victims of anti-Semitic violence that took place in 1190.
The results were published today in the journal Current biology. The researchers were also able to shed new light on Jewish medical history in Europe.
The human remains were discovered during the construction of the Chapelfield Shopping Centre. In 2011, DNA evidence showed that at least 5 of the individuals were from a Jewish community, leading researchers to speculate that they were the victims of mass murder. The new research helps confirm their identities and determine when they may have been killed and buried.
“It’s been more than 12 years since we started looking for who these people are, and technology has finally caught up with our ambition,” says evolutionary geneticist and corresponding author Ian Barnes of the Natural History Museum in London. “Our main task was to establish the identity of these individuals at the ethnic level.”
Unlike other mass burial sites, where bodies were laid in an organized fashion, the skeletons in this pit were oddly positioned and mixed together, likely because they were laid head first shortly after death. . Archaeological research has returned six adults and 11 children at the unusual burial site. Together, these findings hint at mass deaths such as starvation, disease, or murder. Radiocarbon dating of the remains has placed their deaths between the late 12th and early 13th centuries – a period with well-documented outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence in England – which has led scholars to consider foul play.
To piece together the individuals’ past lives, the team dug into the DNA of six skeletons from the well using new technology that decodes millions of DNA fragments at once. The results showed that the individuals were almost certainly Ashkenazi Jews. Among them, four were closely related, including three full sisters – one aged 5 to 10, one aged 10 to 15 and a young adult. DNA analysis has also inferred that the physical traits of a 0-3 year old boy include blue eyes and red hair, the latter of which is a characteristic associated with historical stereotypes of European Jews.
Radiocarbon dating reveals that the remains were deposited between the year 1161 and 1216 (with 95% certainty). Researchers believe the most likely date for this event was an anti-Semitic massacre in Norwich in 1190. However, they also note that the deaths could have occurred in 1174, when Norwich was attacked by Hugh Bigod as part of a civil conflict that broke out. in England that year.
The article concludes:
These findings are consistent with accounts of anti-Semitic attacks of 1190 CE, involving the targeting of households. It is therefore highly likely that the Chapelfield remains were those of the victims of the riots of 1190 CE, despite the challenges of associating archaeological sites with specific historical events.
This Jewish community had settled in Norwich during the reign of King William I (1066-1087), who came from the Norman city of Rouen. Researchers explored the most distant ancestry of this population and found that they were likely once part of Jewish communities in Sicily and Turkey.
– Source of medieval English human remains for early times
-Population continuity between 12th century and modern Ashkenazi Jews
-Four alleles associated with genetic disorders in JA observed
-The founding event raising the frequencies of genetic disorders predates the 12th century
– Marc Thomas (@mt_genes) August 30, 2022
Those who died were found to be carriers of certain genetic disorders, for which modern Ashkenazi Jewish populations are at greater risk. Genetic disorders that are particularly common in certain populations can arise during bottleneck events, where a rapid reduction in the population can lead to a large increase in the number of people carrying otherwise rare genetic mutations.
Using computer simulations, the team showed that the number of these disease mutations in the remains was similar to what they would expect if the diseases were as common then as they are today. among Ashkenazi Jews today. The findings point to a bottleneck event that shaped the modern Ashkenazi Jewish population before the 12th century, earlier than previous beliefs, which dated the event to around 500 to 700 years ago.
“It was quite surprising that the initially unidentified remains filled the historical void regarding the formation of certain Jewish communities and the origins of certain genetic disorders,” says evolutionary geneticist and co-author Mark Thomas of University College London. “No one had analyzed ancient Jewish DNA before because of bans on disturbing Jewish graves. However, we only found out after doing the genetic analyses.
NAU excavated the remains of at least 6 adults and 11 children. As this is a minimum number and the shaft was truncated by later activity, it is almost certainly a substantial underestimate of the actual number of people who were buried in the shaft at the time. origin. pic.twitter.com/1bJeI3YFJ2
—Tom Booth (@Boothicus) August 30, 2022
After learning the identity of the remains, the local community held an official Jewish burial for the individuals. Barnes and Thomas say they still don’t know what directly caused the deaths of the 17 individuals, and that’s a puzzle that ancient DNA can’t solve. However, by working with local historians, archaeologists, and the community, researchers have offered new insights into historical violence and the origins of the Ashkenazi Jewish population.
“When you’re studying ancient DNA from people who died hundreds or thousands of years ago, you’re not often working with a living community at the same time,” says Barnes. “It’s been really satisfying to work with this community on a story that’s so important to them.”
The article, “Genomes from a medieval mass burial show that inherited diseases associated with Ashkenazim predate the 12th century”, by Selina Brace, Yoan Diekmann, Thomas Booth, Ruairidh Macleod, Adrian Timpson, Will Stephen, Giles Emery , Sophie Cabot, Mark G. Thomas and Ian Barnes, appears in Current biology. Click here to read this.