DNA testing has revealed the origin of the bodies discovered at the bottom of a medieval well
By: April Carson
In 2004, construction workers in Norwich, England were shocked to find 17 bodies at the bottom of an 800-year-old well while they were working on a new shopping mall.
Archaeologists have long been stumped as to who the six adults and 11 children were and why they ended up in a medieval well. Unlike other mass funerals, where bodies are laid down in a straight line, the corpses were improperly positioned and jumbled—possibly as a result of being thrown head first soon after death.
Recently, scientists were able to extract detailed genetic material from the bones of ancient people. Thanks to advances in DNA sequencing, they were able to learn more about how these people died. The genomes of six individuals showed that four of them were related--including three sisters. The youngest was only five to 10 years old. Further analysis suggested that all six were Ashkenazi Jews.
This type of DNA testing is becoming increasingly common as scientists strive to learn more about our ancient ancestors. In this case, it has revealed new details about a gruesome mass murder that took place centuries ago.
After studying the bones, researchers believe that they all died during a period of intense antisemitic violence in the city. Most likely, this was a riots related to the Third Crusade that took place in February 1190. This is according to what was described by a medieval chronicler. However, it is unclear how many people were killed in the massacre.
Researchers were also able to learn about the health of these individuals. For example, one woman had a genetic mutation that would have caused her to have very pale skin. This is known as albinism. The team also found evidence of tuberculosis in one individual.
The study found that Judaism is largely a shared religious and cultural identity, though due to the common practice of marrying within the community, Ashkenazi Jewish groups often have genetic markers for several uncommon disorders. These include Tay-Sachs disease, which more often than not proves fatal in childhood.
The individuals in the well were found to share a genetic ancestry similar to present-day Ashkenazi Jews. According to the study, medieval Jewish populations with histories mainly in northern and Eastern Europe are descendants of these contemporary Ashkenazi Jews.
Nobody had studied ancient Jewish DNA because of the taboo against disturbing Jewish graves. However, we didn't realize they were most likely Jewish until after doing the genetic testing, according to evolutionary geneticist and study coauthor Mark Thomas of University College London.
"It's pretty clear these individuals were Jewish. It provides the first direct genetic evidence that people in this well were Jewish," Thomas said.
This is a reconstructed face of one of the children discovered in the medieval well. "It was quite remarkable that the previously unidentified remains filled in the chronological gap on when certain Jewish communities first emerged, as well as some hereditary anomalies," he added.
The DNA analysis also suggested that a toddler boy discovered in the well had blue eyes and red hair, both of which are typical physical characteristics of European Jews. The latter, according on the research published Tuesday in Current Biology, was a characteristic associated with historical anti-Semitic beliefs about European Jews.
According to medieval manuscript "Imagines Historiarum II," chronicler Ralph de Diceto paints a vivid picture of the attack:
According to the news release, Christian chroniclers wrote that many of those rushing to Jerusalem first planned to rebel against the Jews before being forced by the Saracens. All of Norwich's Jews were slaughtered on February 6 [1190 AD], according to Christian chronicles.
Although the connection isn't definitive, the well was located in what used to be Norwich's medieval Jewish quarter. The study notes that Rouen, Normandy's Ashkenazi Jews - who were invited to England by William the Conqueror during his 1066 invasion - make up the city's Jewish community.
Between 1161 and 1216, the bodies were placed in the well at some point during that period, according to carbon-14 dating of the bones. The outbreak occurred during a period when there were several recorded instances of antisemitic violence in England, as well as the Great Revolt of 1174, when many citizens were murdered in the city.
"As our study demonstrates, archaeology--particularly new techniques such as ancient DNA analysis--can offer fresh perspectives on historical events," said Tom Booth, a senior research scientist at the Francis Crick Institute, in the news release. "The application of these techniques to the study of medieval skeletons from across Europe has the potential to transform our understanding of this turbulent period."
"This is the first time that we've been able to use DNA testing to identify the remains of victims of anti-Semitism," said Simon Reeves, co-author of the study and a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Bristol.
The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.
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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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