The First Oxford Jewish Cemetery

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 This story begins on Thursday 17th Nov 2016 with an email from Dr Michael Smith of the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) to Pam Manix (Medieval Historian and member of the Oxford Jewish Heritage Committee (OJHC)). The message reported that “MOLA are working on recording parts of the Muniments Tower at Magdalen College, and I believe Robert Langley has contacted you regarding some disarticulated human remains that have been discovered under a couple of floors in the building. David Radford, the Oxford City Archaeologist, believes that they may have originally been disturbed from burials within the original 12th century Jewish cemetery, the area of which had been taken over by the hospital of St John the Baptist in 1231.   Robert wondered if you would have an opinion on the likely provenance of the very broken up bones that have been discovered in the present works?”

Pam responded immediately and confirmed the site was precisely where she believed the first Jewish Cemetery of Oxford was sited, and put them in touch with me, as a representative of the OJHC, and the Chevra Kaddisha (Holy Committee or Burial Group) for the Oxford Jewish Congregation (OJC).

Figure 1A fragment of skull found in 2016

By the time her full response was received and it was felt likely that these bones were human and likely to be from multiple Jewish Burials, it became clear that in fact the bones had been found a week or so earlier and reported to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) who issued a licence to excavate the bones.   It transpired that the previous Friday, acting on the advice of the MoJ, Dr Smith tried to contact the Office of the Chief Rabbi, but being near to Shabbat the answerphone was on, and no response was received. Meanwhile the OJC’s Chevra Kaddisha and OJHC swung into action.  At that early point the MoJ advised that it would be appropriate to re-inter the bones on site if possible.   Pam Manix also had knowledge that an earlier Human Bone had indeed been found on the Magdalen College site in nearby Chaplain’s Quad in 1976.  The OJHC discussed the matter with several experts in Oxford University carbon dating labs, and the Forensic department who expressed no interest in getting involved.  However the OJHC felt inclined to pursue further studies on the bones if possible and made contact with Drs. Tom Booth and Ian Barnes at the Natural History Museum in London, who were still working on the likely medieval Jewish Bones found in the Well in 2004 in Norwich, doing Carbon Dating and DNR analysis.    He was keen to attempt to sample the Oxford Bones, as the project was ongoing and would benefit from more samples of medieval DNA, particularly from Jews.

 Pam Manix was adamant that in her view the location where the new bones were found was likely within the perimeter of that First Medieval Jewish Cemetery of 1189-90 to 1232. For some time in public walks and talks Pam had focused public attention on Chaplain’s Quad being the general location of the First Cemetery.  In the book Beneath Our Feet: Oxford’s Medieval Jewish Cemetery, she is more precise.   

 Figure 2. Pam’s Map of medieval Oxford showing First Jewish Cemetery

As near as she could ascertain, the site originally acquired by the Jews in 1189/90 from the larger Peter Boterel manor (the rest of which was given to the Hospital of St. John later), undoubtedly extended beyond Chaplain’s Quad and the footprint under Magdalen’s medieval range and the Tower. The length of the site along the road is known to have been 300 feet from the River Cherwell back toward the city walls, however the actual depth of the site was never recorded. Considering that the medieval Oxford Jewish community (which numbered as many as 200 living residents at any one time at its height) was purchasing a burial ground intended for as many hundred years as they expected (at that time) to be here (i.e. forever?). If you compare it size-wise with medieval Jewish burial grounds that survive across (especially Eastern Europe) a plot of several acres or more is pretty typical.    A minimal two-acre site, therefore, would logically duplicate the known 300 foot length with a 300 foot depth of plot, as posited in Pam’s two site maps. Where the new bones have been found you will see was right within what we believed to be the site of the Cemetery

 Pam Manix felt that there was a reasonably likely chance that these bones were medieval Jewish ones, particularly given the detail that the bones are unceremoniously mixed together in one place.   This was because;  a) firstly it was fairly certain that the Hospital (i.e. patients) cemetery was the one found a few years ago in Magdalen’s Long Wall Quad; and b) it is unlikely that so little care would have been taken of resident Hospital brothers’ and nuns’ bones, certainly during the Hospital period, and perhaps even during the early Magdalen building period. Furthermore a human bone had been uncovered in Chaplain’s Quad in 1976 by Brian Durham’s archaeological excavation, indicated by the large red X on the blueprint (Fig 3).  Unfortunately, that bone is currently misplaced somewhere in Museum Services long-term storage!

 By the end of November 2016, the following had been agreed: that the Oxford Jewish Congregation would take on the responsibility of reburying the bones, but that there should be an attempt to perform Carbon dating, and DNA analysis in the hope that they could contribute to the ongoing search at the Museum of Natural History to isolate certain haplo-groups and other signs of medieval DNA that might lead to being able to definitively identify medieval Jewish DNA, and identify these bones as Jewish. In addition, Magdalen proposed that they would erect a stone plaque near the discovery to honour this First Jewish Cemetery  completing recognition of the College’s double link with medieval Jewish Oxford that had started in 2012 with the OJHC’s erection of a stone at the site of the Second Jewish Cemetery of 1232-1290 in Magdalen precincts across the street.

Discussions were ongoing even at this early stage, however, as to where reburial of these bones should take place; in the approximate area of their excavation, or in the Oxford Jewish Cemetery at Wolvercote. If the latter, then it was agreed that in the area reserved for those whose Jewishness could not be documented would be preferable. The OJHC was split at that point as to which option was the best.

Figure 3. Modern Map of Oxford showing site of Brian Durham’s bone found 1976 (Red X) and New Bone finds

By early February 2017 contact had been established with the team of experts in the DNA of ancient bones at the Natural History Museum in London, who were enthusiastic to be involved. Having only a limited collection of random disarticulated bones,  they suggested that a sample from the jawbone would be best for Carbon Dating, and one of the teeth might have sufficient uncorrupted DNA in the tooth pulp for the investigation.   However, in spite of their enthusiasm, the likely costs involved would be in excess of £1500.

Contact was also made with Sophie Cabot, the archeologist involved in the 2004 Norfolk Bodies-in-the-Well case, who recommended guarded contact with the press and outside bodies regarding the bones and their reburial, having had significant negative media attention during her investigation.    Therefore the publicity we had considered was put firmly on the back boiler for the time being.

The Ministry of Justice gave permission for the bones to be reburied in Wolvercote Cemetery if that was our choice and also for the scientific sampling of the bones.   The Wolvercote Cemetery Manager gave a quote of £400 for burial in a small child’s casket plus other charges.

Figure 4. Dr Tom Booth examines on of the Bones

Dr Tom Booth of the Natural History Museum travelled to Oxford and met with members of the OJH Committee and Members of Magdalen College so that samples could be taken from the bones.    Having seen only photographs of a few bones in situ in the ground, we were astonished at the number of bones that  had actually been unearthed, and Tom was excited to find a fragment of a maxilla (upper jaw) with teeth which could be sampled.    He returned to London with his samples and we sat to await the results.

Some months later, in May 2017, we received the news that the carbon dating of the bones suggested a date of 1260-1310, indicating that the bones were just slightly outside the expected range of 1190-1232, but Pam felt that a near-miss with the carbon dating was not entirely surprising particularly since these bones had sat exposed on the surface of the soil in the air since the late middle ages, just under floorboards. Equally, because there are no records of any Hospital of St. John the Baptist burials having taken place anywhere near the area formerly used as a burial plot by the Jews at any time during the Hospital occupation of the site from 1232-1450), she further felt that testing the bones for DNA under the assumption that they are from the Jewish burial period was reasonable. A thirty-year technical discrepancy does not seem out of the realm of possibility after 900 years and the circumstances.

Dr Tom Booth proceeded to take a sample from a tooth found in the maxilla bone and to begin the process of culturing the DNA to analyse it.  The hope was to compare the DNA profile from bones from medieval Jews in the area of France from which we knew the Oxford Jews had come in the XIth C, and other non-Jewish bones of the period, to see if there were significant matches.

This process is slow and in April 2018 the following email was sent to Magdalen: “Just to keep you updated, the Magdalen sample has now been through all the lab processes, it’s just waiting to be sequenced. The time it takes will depend on the queue, I’ll let you know when I have a better idea of the waiting time!”

By June, and with almost fortnightly badgering, the following message arrived from the Natural History Museum “The good news is that there does seem to be ancient human DNA in there. The bad news is that this is only about 1% of the overall sample (the rest is probably composed of DNA from environmental bacteria), meaning we will have to do a bit more work to try to enhance the amount of human DNA in the sample before we can say anything definitive. Even then it is possible that the sample still might not be good enough to glean anything useful.

We’re going to proceed with more analysis and lab work to see what we can say at this point and try to get the maximum information out of the sample – it’s in our interests to get this working for our work on the Norwich skeletons!”  

We were in a queue to analyse medieval DNA, who would have thought it?

We suggested sampling another bone but were advised that sadly the best bone – the petrous portion of the temporal bone – was not among the bones found.    Teeth are usually the next best, so it was unlikely that sampling anything else would yield a better result.    We also learned that they had recovered a petrous bone from Norwich, and the context of those remains meant that they were particularly well preserved, which is why they’ve been able to ascertain such good results.

In November 2018 the following report was received from Dr Booth:

“There is a 1 in 20 chance that the true date of death for this individual lies outside of the 95% confidence interval. Further radiocarbon dating of the bones would help to resolve this issue. However, when combined with the historical evidence, a 13th Century radiocarbon date for human bones recovered from this part of the College is highly suggestive of an origin in the Jewish cemetery. The Jewish cemetery is the only reasonable place from which the remains could have originated given these results.

Unfortunately, while we were able to extract some ancient human DNA from the tooth we sampled, this was not of high enough quality to make any conclusions about the individual’s ancestry. We will use further enrichment methods to try to increase the human DNA content, but there is no guarantee that these methods will be successful. We sampled a tooth as this was the element which had the greatest potential for success from this assemblage in the absence of petrous temporal bones. The failure of the tooth sample means that it is highly unlikely we would have any success with other available skeletal elements. In any case, a successful ancient DNA result could not have been used to exclude the possibility that these bones originated from the Jewish cemetery. A scenario in which we detected ancestry characteristic of the Jewish diaspora would of course have substantially increased the probability that these remains originated from the Jewish cemetery. However, the absence of such ancestry can be explained by other factors, for instance religious conversion.

Therefore, in spite of the radiocarbon date falling slightly outside of the range that we would expect, it still contributes to the conclusion that the Jewish cemetery represents the most probable origins for the human bones recovered from Magdalen College.”

We now felt secure in our belief that these bones were Jewish, and that they should be reburied in consecrated ground: the next question was where.    Either the Jewish Section of Wolvercote Cemetery or replacing them in the First Jewish Cemetery where they were initially buried in consecrated ground until exposed. The OJHC was undecided, and felt the next step was to approached Magdalen for their view.   In discussions with them it became clear they were happy to reinter the bones as near as possible to their original site, and that furthermore they were prepared to place a stone on the Magdalen site to commemorate that here was the First Jewish Cemetery of Oxford. By December 2018 we had agreed the wording of the memorial stone that marks both the site of the cemetery, and also acts as a stone memorial to the souls buried in that place originally.

    Figure 5. Text of NEW Memorial Stone      

So it was that on Thursday 20th June 2019 a group of over 35 persons attended an almost unique event when the bones were returned to the earth in the Cloister Garden Quad lawn of Magdalen in a simple, but moving ceremony[1] under a sunny sky  (briefly only, but for the 45 minute duration of the event). Certainly, more than a minyan and included the President of Magdalen, Dr David Clary FRS and his wife Mrs Heather Clary, the Vice-President, the Dean of Magdalen and several students and Alumni of the College, together with representatives of the OJC, several of the OJHC members, and a number of Jewish and Hebrew Scholars.   Pam Manix did a wonderful job of introducing the historical facts surrounding the medieval Oxford Jewish Cemeteries.   Rabbi Norman Solomon conducted the reburial service and Dr Michael Ward placed the bones within their small shroud into the grave,  and all those present filled the grave.   Rabbi Solomon then read the new plaque that has been installed in the St John’s Quad, just inside the entrance from the porters lodge at Magdalen, in the shadow of the Founder’s Tower. Magdalen provided a tea in the sunshine in the Garden Quad. 

Figure 6. The congregation at the reburial 

 The OJHC and the OJC  thank Magdalen College, its President, and the Home Bursar, Mark Blandford-Baker, and the College Surveyor, Robert Langley for having worked so patiently and generously with us to achieve this fitting end to this story.

Figure 7. The site 2019           
Figure 8Rabbi Solomon reads the Memorial

The order of service is attached available on our website

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