Bones Found in Medieval Well Likely Belong to Victims of Anti-Semitic Massacre

A new DNA analysis suggests the 17 individuals were Ashkenazi Jews murdered in Norwich, England, in 1190

Digital facial reconstructions of two of the individuals found in the well, based on skeletal remains and DNA
Digital facial reconstructions of two of the individuals found in the well, based on skeletal remains and DNA Caroline Wilkinson / Natural History Museum, London

In 1190 C.E., Christian soldiers making their way to Jerusalem to fight in the Third Crusade stopped in eastern England to “rise against the Jews before they invaded the Saracens,” or Muslims. According to medieval chronicler Ralph de Diceto, on February 6, “all the Jews who were found in their own houses at Norwich were butchered; some had taken refuge in the castle.”

The Norwich massacre was part of a broader wave of violence against England’s Jews, who faced mounting anti-Semitism in the late 12th century due to the “religious fervor of the Crusades,” per Historic U.K.’s Seth Eislund, and baseless accusations of blood libel. (The blood libel myth—the false notion that Jews used the blood of Christian children for ritual purposes—actually originated in Norwich, where a boy named William died in 1144; his family accused local Jews of murdering him.)

Scholars are unsure of how many lives the 1190 pogrom claimed, but a new genetic analysis published in the journal Current Biology suggests that 17 skeletons found in a well in Norwich in 2004 belong to victims of the attack. DNA extracted from six of the deceased contains close links to modern-day Ashkenazi Jewish populations, including markers for genetic disorders common in the community. Using radiocarbon dating, the researchers estimated that the 17 people died between 1161 and 1216. These discoveries, combined with the unusual circumstances of the burial, support the idea that the individuals were murdered during the 1190 massacre.

“Ralph de Diceto’s account … is evocative, but a deep well containing the bodies of Jewish men, women and especially children forces us to confront the real horror of what happened,” says study co-author Tom Booth, a bioarchaeologist at the Francis Crick Institute in England, in a statement.

Marginal illustration from the Rochester Chronicle, showing the expulsion of England's Jews following Edward I's 1290 Edict of Expulsion
Marginal illustration from the Rochester Chronicle, showing the expulsion of England's Jews following Edward I's 1290 Edict of Expulsion British Library

Unearthed during construction of a shopping center, the remains of the 11 children and 6 adults have baffled experts since their discovery 18 years ago. Buried outside of consecrated ground just south of Norwich’s medieval Jewish quarter, the bones’ positioning inside the well indicates the victims were thrown in headfirst, with the bodies of the adults cushioning the children’s fall. Because the skeletons showed no signs of trauma associated with trying to break a fall, the victims were likely already dead when deposited into the well.

Initially, researchers theorized that the individuals died of famine or disease—perhaps even the bubonic plague. But as BBC News reported in 2011, when the BBC series “History Cold Case” delved into the mystery, the bones contained no traces of illnesses such as leprosy or tuberculosis; radiocarbon dating also placed the deaths well before the plague’s arrival in the region. That left a mass killing event as the most likely explanation for the group’s demise and hasty, unceremonious interment.

“We don’t know actually how they were murdered, but it seems most likely that they were,” co-author Selina Brace, a biologist at London’s Natural History Museum, tells the Guardian’s Nicola Davis.

Aside from ribs probably broken during the fall into the well, the bodies showed little evidence of physical violence. Per the study, it’s possible the victims were “intentionally killed by a method which left no signs of trauma on the bones.”

In 2011, experts working on the “History Cold Case” episode tentatively identified the bodies as Jewish victims of an anti-Semitic pogrom. But a DNA analysis proved inconclusive, and in 2013, Alan West, curator of archaeology at the Norwich Castle Museum, told the Jewish Chronicle that “there is nothing to suggest they are of Jewish origins.” That same year, despite ongoing uncertainty over the remains’ identity, the bones were reburied in a Jewish cemetery in Norwich.

Thanks to advances in DNA testing, the new study offers more definitive insights. By analyzing 6 of the 17 victims in the well, the team found that 4 were closely related, 3 of whom were sisters; the youngest sister was between 5 and 10 years old. A boy who died between infancy and age 3 probably had blue eyes and red hair—“a feature associated with historical stereotypes of European Jews,” according to the statement.

The term “Judaism” mainly refers to a common religious and cultural identity. But as Katie Hunt explains for CNN, Ashkenazi Jews (a diasporic Jewish population whose ancestors lived primarily in Northern and Eastern Europe) often “carry a distinctive genetic ancestry” stemming from a “long-standing practice of marrying within the community.” Certain genetic disorders, including Tay-Sachs disease and primary ciliary dyskinesia, are more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jewish communities due to bottleneck events, in which “a rapid reduction of the population size can lead to big jumps in the number of people carrying otherwise rare genetic mutations,” per the statement.

After comparing the Norwich DNA with the genomes of more than a dozen western Eurasian groups, the researchers concluded that the 17 individuals were “more closely related to today’s Ashkenazi Jewish populations … than to modern non-Jewish ones in England,” writes McKenzie Prillaman for Nature. What’s more, they carried genetic variants in numbers similar to today’s Ashkenazi Jews, which means the bottleneck events responsible for these disorders likely came before the 12th century. Previously, experts believed it happened 500 to 700 years ago.

“It was quite surprising that the initially unidentified remains filled the historical gap about when certain Jewish communities first formed, and the origins of some genetic disorders,” says co-author Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London, in the statement. “Nobody had analyzed Jewish ancient DNA before because of prohibitions on the disturbance of Jewish graves. However, we did not know they were likely Jewish until after doing the genetic analyses.”

Clifford's Tower, where the Jews of York sought refuge from an anti-Semitic mob in March 1190
Clifford's Tower, where the Jews of York sought refuge from an anti-Semitic mob in March 1190 Jhsteel via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Speaking with Nature, Eran Elhaik, a population, medical and evolutionary geneticist at Lund University in Sweden, casts doubt on the DNA analysis, arguing that the team identified the individuals as Ashkenazi Jews “because that was the only population that they considered.” In response, co-author Ian Barnes, an evolutionary geneticist at the Natural History Museum, tells Nature that local archaeologists and historians know of few other “plausible alternatives” in terms of “other groups that might [have been] in medieval Norwich at the time.”

Norman Jews first migrated to England shortly after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Settling in places like Norwich, Lincoln and York, they worked mainly as financiers and moneylenders—occupations then off limits for Christians.

The Norwich massacre was one of several anti-Semitic pogroms to take place in England in 1189 and 1190. To the north, in York, a mob trapped the city’s Jewish population in a tower. Rather than surrendering to the bloodthirsty crowd, the besieged Jews decided to commit suicide.

Growing anti-Jewish sentiment culminated in Edward I’s expulsion of England’s Jews in 1290. Jews were only readmitted to Britain 366 years later, in 1656.