Skeletons found in 12th century well

Members of the BBC investigative team with some of the skeletons

Members of the BBC investigative team with some of the skeletons

The remains of 17 people, believed to be Jewish and found at the bottom of a 12th century well, may change historians' accounts of past attitudes towards medieval Jews.

The skeletons were originally found in 2004 during work on a new shopping centre in Norwich. Now they have been re-examined for a BBC documentary.

Using a combination of DNA analysis, carbon-dating and bone chemical studies, forensic anthropologists at the University of Dundee have worked on the skeletons, which date back to the 12th or 13th centuries. DNA expert Dr Ian Barnes said: "The DNA data suggests the remains share a genetic lineage and common ancestry with modern-day Jews."

The results indicate that five of the bodies were members of a single Jewish family, and a total of 11 were children under the age of 15.

After detailed examination, it seems they did not die of disease, and now the scientists have claimed they were the victims of an "act of violence".

Local historian and archaeologist, Sophie Cabot, said: "This has changed our overview of what is known about medieval Jewry in Norwich and community relations.

"We knew from historical accounts that there were occasional attacks against the Jewish community, but we didn't think many people were killed and nothing suggested there was anything approaching this number."

Forensic anthropologist Dr Xanthe Mallett said: "Local historians were very surprised that the remains were Jewish. It has really changed Jewish history in the UK and Norwich's history."

But not everyone is convinced. Marcus Roberts, director of JTrails, the National Anglo-Jewish Heritage Trail, said: "I have yet to see any really detailed evidence, apart from some possible DNA that could be indicative of 'Jewish ethnicity'. I have my doubts that these are Jewish remains, or if they are, that they were the victims of violence."

If the remains are indeed Jewish, Rabbi Yehuda Brodie, of the Manchester Beth Din, said the discovery posed "new halachic questions" of reburial.

"Other reburial of medieval remains have always been based on documentary evidence, such as in Winchester and York. This is the first time we are talking about remains identified as Jewish, just from DNA evidence, and found outside the environment of a cemetery. "

History Cold Case: The Bodies in a Well, will be shown on BBC2 on July 14.

    Last updated: 1:37pm, June 30 2011