Norwich to bury bones — Jewish or not

Norwich’s Jewish community is planning to bury the excavated remains of 17 people from medieval times — despite expert doubts over whether or not they are Jewish.

The intermingled bones, including those of 11 children, were found at the bottom of a 12th-century well in the centre of the city four years ago.

In 2011, a BBC2 documentary about the discovery, History Cold Case: the Bodies in a Well, suggested they could have been the victims of a violent attack.

Clive Roffe, who represents Norwich Hebrew Congregation on the Board of Deputies, said the community hoped to go ahead with burying the skeletons in a few weeks.

“We’re satisfied, in all probability, that they are Jewish,” he said.

But Alan West, curator of archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum, was sceptical, saying “there is nothing to suggest they are of Jewish origins”.

A number of the remains were examined by scientists from Royal Holloway, University of London to see if their DNA yielded any clues to their ancestry.

Initially, they felt that “the balance of probability made it likely that these individuals did indeed have Jewish ancestry”.

But, after further discussions with historians and archaeologists, they wrote, “it became clear that in fact the interpretation that the individuals were Jewish was not felt to be especially likely”.

Dr Ian Barnes, of Royal Holloway, said this week that it remained “a plausible explanation” that the people were Jewish.

The genetic sequences, which were unusual for the time and indicated origins from South-East Europe to Central Asia and not from Western Europe, needed to be explained, he said. There was “not much ethnic diversity” in medieval Norwich.

Further DNA tests are being carried out by an expert in the field, Dr Joachim Burger of Mainz University in Germany. “I am afraid that this sample has not been completely analysed yet,” he said. That would probably take “one or two months”.

Mr West said that, over time, there could have been other settlers in the area from Roman legionaries to traders and Christian pilgrims who brought back wives from the Middle East.

“There were the means, motives and opportunities for long-distance population transfers for over 1,000 years before the burial of the skeletons in question, and these were far more likely to be Christian than Jewish,” he said.

In medieval times, the Norwich Jewish population consisted of around 150-200 souls but the city was also the site of the first blood libel in Britain when Jews were made scapegoats for the death of a young boy, William of Norwich.

Last updated: 5:45pm, March 7 2013