DNA Analysis Sheds Light on Victims of 12th-Century Violence

DNA Analysis Sheds Light on Victims of 12th-Century Violence

In 2004, workers on a construction site in Norwich, England, stumbled upon an 800-year-old well as they prepared the ground for a new shopping center. Inside the well, they uncovered a heartbreaking and chilling sight: the remains of 17 people, including 6 adults and 11 children.

The scene was perplexing to historians. It didn’t look like other mass burial sites typical of the period. Rather than being laid out side by side, the skeletons were haphazardly positioned, giving the impression that these individuals had been unceremoniously tossed head-first into the well shortly after their deaths.

Who were these people? Why were they thrown hastily into a well 800 years ago? And what caused their untimely deaths?

These questions remained unanswered until recent advances allowed scientists to extract and analyze DNA samples from the remains. Their research revealed that some of these individuals were related to each other: 3 of the children were sisters. More significantly, their DNA had what the researchers called “strong genetic affinities with modern Ashkenazi Jews.”

This was striking for a number of reasons. For one thing, while the modern Ashkenazi Jewish population is known to have distinct genetic characteristics, the scientific community had previously believed these characteristics developed later than the 12th century. They were surprised to learn that Ashkenazi Jews from 800 years ago were so genetically similar to Ashkenazi Jews from today.

For another thing, the findings pointed to a very specific historical event. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the individuals died sometime between 1161 and 1216 — and it was known that an antisemitic massacre took place in Norwich in 1190, carried out by residents setting out on the Third Crusade. Though not definitive, the evidence strongly suggests that the individuals found in the well were victims of this attack.

A 13th-century depiction of the Siege of Acre during the Third Crusade

A 13th-century depiction of the Siege of Acre during the Third Crusade

The researchers just published their conclusions in Current Biology, noting that they identified 4 alleles associated with genetic diseases prevalent in Ashkenazi Jewish populations as well as pigmentation traits corresponding to a historical stereotype: one of the children had blue eyes and red hair.

This is significant because it means that these DNA traits found in modern Ashkenazi Jewish populations were already present in the 12th century — far earlier than what was previously thought.

There’s a reason the scientific community didn’t know this before. Honoring the dead is an extremely important value in Jewish tradition, and disturbing Jewish burial sites is considered a severe violation of the dignity of those laid to rest there. Out of respect for this aspect of Jewish culture, scientists have never analyzed the DNA of ancient people known to be Jewish before.

In this case, however, the scientists were not aware that these individuals were likely Jewish until after the genetic analyses had already been carried out. The researchers then proceeded with the support and cooperation of the Norwich Hebrew Congregation and the Office of the Chief Rabbi. The remains were reburied in the local Jewish cemetery in 2013 and their burial site was marked with a commemorative plaque.

This case is an excellent example of leveraging cutting-edge technology to shed light on the past — which is exactly what we do at MyHeritage. As DNA analysis technology evolves, so does our ability to understand our personal and collective histories.

Want to understand more about your own history? Order your MyHeritage DNA test today.