Bodies in Norwich well buried in Jewish cemetery

The remains of 17 bodies, 11 children and six adults, dating to the 12th-13th century found at the bottom of a well in 2004 were given a Jewish burial in Norwich’s Earlham Cemetery on Tuesday. The bones were picked up by a hearse from the Norwich Castle Museum where they’ve been in storage. They were placed in five coffins covered with tallits (Jewish prayer shawls), driven past the Norwich Hebrew Congregation Synagogue and to the Jewish Cemetery within the larger cemetery where local Rabbi Alex Bennet conducted a traditional Jewish burial service.

Bishop David Gillet, interfaith adviser to the Diocese of Norwich, eulogized the deceased and took the opportunity to express repentance for the ugly history of Christian antisemitic persecution, pledging to “live and work in our generation for supportive and respectful relationships between our two communities.” There’s film of the service in this ITV story.

It took a lot of work to get to this place. The biggest issue was whether the remains could be positively identified as Jewish. Although DNA testing performed by Dr. Ian Barnes on the BBC show History Cold Case indicated that five of the 17 people were members of the same family with origins in South-East Europe to Central Asia rather than Western Europe, that’s not conclusive proof of Jewishness. It’s certainly evidence, especially in the relatively ethnically homogeneous society of medieval Norwich, but there are other possibilities. They could have been the descendants of Roman soldiers or even the result of intermarriages between Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and Middle Eastern locals.

The circumstantial evidence supports the Jewish theory. The well in which they were found was adjacent to the Jewish neighborhood and why would 17 Christians, 11 of them children, be dumped down a dry well rather than buried in consecrated ground? Even plague victims were laid out in pits and they were infectious. Their sad fate smacks of the deliberate disrespect of a mob, and many Jews faced the business end of mobs between the Norman conquest and Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290.

At any rate, the evidence was sufficiently convincing for Clive Roffe, Norwich representative on the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to campaign for the bones’ proper burial. Starting in 2011 after the BBC program aired, Roffe together with Bishop David Gillet and other members of the Jewish community and Christian clergy petitioned for the bones to be released from the Norwich Castle Museum “for decent and appropriate burial.”

Museum authorities were initially reluctant. They wanted the bones to be available for further study and Alan West, curator of archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum, didn’t think there was any evidence suggesting they were Jewish. After more than two years of lobbying, the Board of Deputies persuaded the museum that no matter what their ethnicity, the bones should be respectfully buried and if the Jewish community was willing to accept them as their own based even on the mere chance that they were the remains of murdered Jews, then they should be allowed to take them in hand.

The board intends to erect a monument on the grave site indicating that the buried are thought to have been victims of a pogrom like the one in 1190 which took place in Norwich on the heels of an anti-Jewish massacre in York. The bodies will also be commemorated on a plaque in St. Stephen’s church which will quote the Hebrew scriptures.

Meanwhile the attempt to narrow down who these 17 people were continues. Dr. Joachim Burger of Mainz University in Germany, a top expert in the field, is in the process of analyzing the DNA. He won’t have any results to share for at least another month or two.


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Comment by Hels
2013-03-20 02:09:49

Great story. I am not sure if the tv programme that you mentioned was History Cold Case, a series that is quite scholarly about evidence gathering and respect for the individuals.

History Cold Case has taken bones away from museums before, to bury them with respect. So I would say it doesn’t matter too much if the curator of archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum has 100% proof that the bodies were Jewish. Or not. The anti-Jewish massacres in York and Norwich changed the course of Anglo-Jewish history for 360 years or more.

Comment by Alan West
2013-03-20 08:22:07

If I may, I’d like to offer a few comments on the article.

Firsly, medieval Norwich may not be as ethnically homogonous as you think. There has been other DNA analysis done on individuals from Timberhill that showed individuals from Germany, Netherlands, Orkney, Palastine, and, rather surprisingly, one from the Indian sub-continent. Medieval Norwich was England’s second largest city, and near two very important ports – Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. So, like London, Birmingham and Leicester today, we can see (and expect to see) a great deal of genetic diversity.

Secondly, the Jewish Quarter was central to Norwich, so most parts of Norwich are near to it. The Jewish Quarter was also not exclusively Jewish, so the body’s proximitly does not indicate any particular ethnicity or beliefs.

Thirdly, well burials are not unknown. There is an example from the Castle Mall excavation where a two bodies were found at the bottom of the barbican well.

Forthly, Christian burials from this period were not completly standardised. Pits containing skeletons heaped up have been excavated at Magdalene St (in a churchyard!).

Fifthly, there are no signs of trauma on the skelletons that can explain their deaths. There are only three bone fractures, one is healed, one is a greenstick fracture and the last is only a possible fracture. It is therfore unlikely that they were victims of a mob or pogrom.

Apologies for the length of this post, but I hope you find this information useful.

Comment by Tom Carroll
2013-03-20 19:11:36

Well, with all that said, why would the Jewish community make such a big deal to clain them as their own, at they own expense, if they did not see the proof. And you know the Jewish Community as well as I do, they will not so much as lift a hair in a situation unless they are more than convinced, and are often the last to be persuaded.

I would be curious to hear your thoughts.


Comment by Alan West
2013-03-21 05:21:14

Hi Tom. Your question had occurred to myself and my colleagues, but I’m afraid I don’t really know the answer.

All I can assume is that a glossy TV program with a thin veneer of science is more persuasive than a museum curator who has read all the reports with an archaeological eye.

And for that of course I must take some of the blame for not communicating things more effectively.


Comment by Anonymous
2013-06-02 22:08:59

:skull: Maybe;With no word exposed to the town or the world throughout history. The Jewish community not a stones throw from the well was responsible for the bodies.And kept the truth among them-selves.Then when the bodies were discovered the Jews claimed them. To try too keep suspicions to a minimum.

Comment by Anonymous
2013-08-05 21:11:51

:skull: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol:

Comment by boudica
2014-01-22 06:20:02

I just came by your post whilst doing research on victims of antisemitism during middle ages across europe. I am asking this question really genuinely, and not to imply some kind of antisemitism on my part (I have seen this type of questions on many dubious sites already) but I do get very confused by this point. I have asked in many places but so far only got ‘stupid’ rantings as answers, your website seems a little more ‘decent’ so I’m hoping for something a little more coherent (sorry for long intro, but wanted ot be clear!)

How can one determine bones belong to a ‘jewish’ family? isn’t ‘jewish’ related to religion? Can one determine if bones are christian, jewish, or muslim?

Comment by wendy
2015-02-23 08:11:07

I have been concerned with the way in which the remains of these Jewish citizens were to be acknowledge since first seeing the programme in 2004, and I have tried to make the public aware of this awful time in history and the growing Jewish problem,and to having a plaque on site in respect
Without saying any more ,this has now been done and a plaque has been placed on the wall of Chapelfield shopping centre in commemoration also the remains have been buried in the Jewish cemetery in Norwich ,this is wonderful news had has cheered me no end ,I am not of this faith ,but feel respect for the Men , women and children who ended their days in this well .

Comment by Carl
2016-02-10 12:08:56

Take a look at out website which has details and links. Also a link of the original BBC cold Case documentary regarding the Jewish Bones

Comment by Sarah
2016-03-24 10:45:25

Hi Boudica,

saw your comment, though very late!

Jewish is a religion and a race, and there’s dispute within the Jewish community whether it’s enough to practice the religion (roughly, the liberal view) or whether you need to also be descended in the female line: it’s matrilinear (the view of some Orthodox groups). This is reflected elsewhere: the Nazis murdered people who were Christians and atheists and hardlt culturally Jewish (Anne Frank’s family for instance) purely because of their racial descent,

The DNA analysis would look for genetic markers – none of which is necessarily definitive, because people do sneak around… but which may be strongly indicative. But there are some markers on the Y chromosome (the male line) which very strongly suggest not only being Jewish but being one of the Cohenim (the heredity rabbis). If they’d found that it would be as near definitive as you can get. Presumably they didn’t (though it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there – it depends how good the DNA samples were). I don;t know what else they looked for.

Comment by Brian
2017-02-27 12:37:04

Norwich city was one of the three main centres of Jewish life in medieval times,yet it is reticent about this community. There is no signage,no plaques to indicate that it existed and unlike many towns and cities it has no Jewish heritage trails.I assume that the community is ashamed of the history of religious anti-Semitism,oppression and murder and wishes to suppress it.

Comment by Wendy
2017-02-28 10:50:31

The last comment ,what a shame that there is no archive information about the Jewish population in Norwich ,I wonder why that was ?It may well be ashamed of its past anti-semitism .Non the less a plaque exist at the (back) of the new Chapelfield shopping centre in memory of the skeletons that were found .all very sad .

Comment by Carl
2017-03-02 03:48:07

Also a big discussion on our youtube upload of the cold case BBC episode about the bones, just search for norwichjewishbones (all one word) on Youtube.

Comment by Wendy
2017-03-02 10:34:23

Thanks Carl I will do that ,

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