Oxford college reburies 800-year-old Jewish remains

The bones were discovered a few years ago by Magdalen College during building works


Members of Oxford University’s Magdalen College attended a ceremony to reinter Jewish remains believed to date to 1190, when part of the site on which the college was later built was a Jewish burial ground.

The bones were discovered a few years ago by the college during building works, explained Dr Michael Ward, who attended the ceremony on Thursday on behalf of the Oxford Jewish Heritage group.

“The site of the college is right on the edge of the medieval city of Oxford and on land that was given by the king in the 13th century to the Jews.

“After some investigating the college established the remains almost  certainlybelong to members of the Oxford Jewish community,” he said.

At the time, the Jews in Oxford had to bury their dead in London, so when the king gave the community the land for the purposes of burial it “was of great benefit to the Jewish community,” Dr Ward said.

“You can imagine it was a lot of effort and a big journey to transport bodies from Oxford to London in those days.

“We know the land was later given away, to the hospital of St Johns, and gradually that morphed into the college.”

The Jewish community in Oxford was then given a second cemetery until they were exiled by King Edward in 1270.

Dr Ward said: “We thought we knew where the first cemetery was when the bones were found at the college.  At first there was doubt over what the college thought they had found. They came to us with the discovery and were fantastic, consulting us on every step of the way.”

With the support of the college, the local Jewish community contacted the Natural History Museum who offered to run DNA tests and carbon dating on the remains.

Dr Ward said: “We felt it was important for the remains to be laid to rest where they were found.”

The commemoration was attended by 40 people from the local Jewish community and members of Magdalen College.

In an email sent to college members, Professor Sir David Clary, president of Magdalen College wrote: “These remains date from the area of what was a Jewish burial ground (c.1190-1231) and is now part of the cloister buildings. A stone has been set into the paving in St John’s Quad to mark the discovery.”

A short ceremony was led by Rabbi Norman Solomon and representatives of the Oxford Jewish Heritage committee and the Oxford Jewish Congregation.

Dr Ward said: “We said kaddish - the ceremony was a culmination of a three-year project. Not only have we returned the remains to their resting place we have now got a commemorative plaque after 800 years to mark the first Jewish cemetery in Oxford.”

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