New paper claims to have discovered 17 English Jews killed in 12th-century anti-Semitic attack

September 4, 2022 • 9:20 am

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror invited Jews into England. Settling in places like Norwich, York, and Lincoln, they were presumably Ashkenazi Jews, who originated in Europe and the Middle East (my DNA tells me that I’m one of them.)  Their professions were, as a Smithsonian article (second below) recounts, mainly “financiers and moneylenders,” professions that were forbidden for Christians.

But although they were invited in, they weren’t loved, and were ultimately expelled from England in 1290. (Nobody likes the Jews!). History recounts that, around 1190, only 133 years after the Conquest, a group of Jews were killed by Christians who thought they’d do in a bunch of Ashkenazis on their way to the Third Crusade.

Or so the paper below, from a recent issue of Current Biology, tells us. It recounts a genetic analysis of 6 of 17 skeletons—11 adults and 6 children—found in 2004 in a well in Norwich near the location of the city’s ancient Jewish quarter.  This was 18 years ago, and you can see video and photos of mass grave in the “cold case” video below.

The genetic analysis of 6 of these individuals suggests that the skeletons were a group of Ashkenazis, probably ones killed in the 1190 massacre. Click on the screenshot below to go to the Current Biology piece (free access). You can download the pdf here, and I give the reference at the bottom.

First, here’s what was found (photo and caption from 9News.  (You can see a lot more in the video at bottom.)

At least 17 human bodies found at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich were a group of Ashkenazi Jews who may have been victims of anti-Semitic violence during the 12th century. (NPS Archaeology/BBC)

After the remains were excavated, sorted, and sexed, they found 17 bodies, with 11 adults (a mixture of men and women) and 6 children. The bones were radiocarbon dated to between 1161 and 1216 (95% confidence interval), putting the burial right at the time the Jews of Norwich were killed.

Although a few of the bones were broken, that was from being tossed into the well (head first), which cracked some ribs and vertebrae. As for what killed the individuals, there’s no indication of that: no fractures or indications of blows. They were almost surely killed before being tossed into an empty well, perhaps by stabbing or cutting, or perhaps by smoke inhalation if their houses were burned.

Six of the individuals had DNA extracted from the bones for genetic analysis. The authors didn’t do complete genome sequencing, but did enough to determine that three of them, ranging from 10 years old to young adults, were full siblings—sisters. (You can tell the sex from both the bones and the DNA itself.) These three had identical mitochondrial DNA, showing that they came from the same mother. Another individual was more distantly related to these.

We are also at the stage where we can determine with near certainty the hair and eye color of individuals from DNA, for we know which genes are involved in those traits. As the paper notes,

Two individuals were inferred to have had brown eyes, one with “dark” and one with “light” hair (SB605 and SB676, respectively), while the 0- to 3-year-old boy (SB604) was inferred to have had blue eyes and red hair, the latter of which is associated with historical stereotypes of European Jews.

I wasn’t aware that this is a historical stereotype of European Jews; I would have thought that most of them, like me, had dark hair and eyes, but what do I know from historical stereotypes? And of course two of the three were dark, so what we see is variation, not really a confirmation that these were Ashkenazi Jews. The evidence for that comes from genetic data. First, here’s a reconstruction of the faces of two individuals—a young one and an older one—from both DNA and skulls. These are of course very rough, and don’t tell us much. (I wonder, now that 23andMe has a huge sample of my own genetic data, if they could estimate what I look like from my DNA alone. They already guessed correctly that I have dark hair and eyes.)

The genetic evidence for who these individuals were rests on comparing their DNA with several modern populations from Western Eurasia, as well as looking for sequences of genes that cause disease in modern Ashkenazi Jews. (As an inbred group that probably went through a severe reduction in population size, as well as having substantial intermarriage—”endogamy”—living Ashkenazi Jews have a high frequency of genetic disorders, the most famous being Tay-Sachs disease.

You can see below a plot of where the six individuals whose DNA was analyzed (the black dots) fall in a cluster study—made from what’s known as a principal-components analysis—of the various modern populations. analyzed. Data from living Brits are in the small purple cluster at about 9 o’clock, far away from the Norwich individuals, who fall closer to Southern European and Middle Eastern populations, including modern Ashkenazi Jews, Turkish Jews, and North African Jews. As the authors conclude:

We projected the six Chapelfield genomes on a PCA defined by variation among modern western Eurasian population samples, including modern Jewish individuals. All six Chapelfield [Norwich] individuals project well away from present-day British samples, as well as northern Europeans more generally. Instead, they partially overlap with Southern Europeans, close to Cypriots, modern Ashkenazi, Turkish, and North African Jews. These results are consistent with the Chapelfield individuals having Jewish ancestry (cf. Kopelman et al.)

Click to enlarge:

There’s one more line of evidence that the individuals in the well were Ashkenazim. This is the observation that the six individuals analyzed had a much higher similarity of DNA sequence at the “disease genes” to modern Ashkenazis than to other populations. As the authors note:

To explore this further, we formulated a likelihood function to calculate the exact probability of the six individuals’ observed allele reads at the 159 disease loci, given the allele frequencies of any proposed population.

. . . The maximum likelihood read error rate estimates are notably similar (0.87% and 0.94%, respectively), and crucially these results show that the data are 4,615 times more probable under a model that these individuals were sampled from the modern Ashkenazi population than they were sampled from the modern non-Finnish European population. This approach assumes the six individuals are randomly sampled from either population. Further assessment of the effect of this assumption given that three individuals are siblings suggests that in the case of these data our assumption has a conservative effect on the likelihood ratio

This is scientific jargon saying that, in the end, there’s a much higher likelihood that these genes came from Ashkenazim (modern ones) than from modern European populations. (I’m not sure why they exclude Finns, save that Finns have a high proportion of genes from ancient Siberia.)  The high frequency of alleles that, when homozygous (two copies needed), cause genetic disease, suggest that any “bottleneck” in population size of the Ashkenazi must have occurred before these individuals were killed. That’s several centuries earlier than historians have suggested.

The best guess, then, is that the 17 individuals were Ashkenazi Jews killed by Crusaders who wanted to do in a few Semites on their way to doing in some Muslims in Constantinople. But not every scientist agrees. The Smithsonian piece quotes a dissenter:

Speaking with NatureEran Elhaik, a population, medical and evolutionary geneticist at Lund University in Sweden, casts doubt on the DNA analysis, arguing that the team identified the individuals as Ashkenazi Jews “because that was the only population that they considered.” In response, co-author Ian Barnes, an evolutionary geneticist at the Natural History Museum, tells Nature that local archaeologists and historians know of few other “plausible alternatives” in terms of “other groups that might [have been] in medieval Norwich at the time.”

Given that the paper compared the skeletons in the well with modern populations, most of which were not Jewish, I’m not sure what Dr. Elhaik is on about, but he has published a paper claiming that principal-components analysis is faulty and can be biased to get the results you want. That said, the confluence of the historical and genetic data, and the lack of any other plausible explanation for this slaughter (plus the spot-on estimates from carbon dating to the same period where Jews were being killed in the area), convinces me that the authors are probably right.


Here is an hourlong “Cold Case” video from 2018 about the finding of the bodies, made before any genetic work was done. I haven’t watched the whole thing straight through, but you can see the discovery of the skeletons, other forensic estimation, and people’s best guess at the time what the mass grave told us: 


Brace, S. et al. 2022. Genomes from a medieval mass burial show Ashkenazi-associated hereditary diseases pre-date the 12th century. Curr. Biol.

Guest post: On the historicity of Jesus

September 5, 2014 • 7:33 am

Ben Goren, a regular here who frequently argues with other readers about the historicity of Jesus (he denies it), has written a post for general consumption. He’s leveling a challenge at believers equivalent to John Loftus’s “Outsider test for faith.” Ben calls it, well, it’s the title. . .

The Jesus Challenge

by Ben Goren

Many æons ago, in the heyday of USENET, I was first exposed to the idea that maybe there simply wasn’t any “there” there at the heart of Jesus’s story. It was, of course, at first a bizarre notion…but one that eventually become overwhelmingly compelling to me — and especially, ironically enough, after I took the time to look up the original sources Christian apologists offered as evidence for Jesus’s existence.

Somewhere along the line, I started challenging apologists to offer a coherent apologia, a theory of Jesus that was both self-consistent and supported by evidence. In all the years since then, I cannot recall even one single person, Christian, atheist, or other, who argues for an historical Jesus who has ever taken me up on this challenge, despite repeatedly offering it and even begging people to take a whack at it. And, so, I’d like to thank Jerry for letting me use his own soapbox to present this challenge to what’s, I’m sure, the largest audience it’s yet received.

It’s quite simple.

  1. Start with a clear, concise, unambiguous definition of who Jesus was. Do the Gospels offer a good biography of him? Was he some random schmuck of a crazy street preacher whom nobody would even thought to have noticed? Was he a rebel commando, as I’ve even heard some argue?
  2. Offer positive evidence reliably dated to within a century or so of whenever you think Jesus lived that directly supports your position. Don’t merely cite evidence that doesn’t contradict it; if, for example, you were to claim that Jesus was a rebel commando, you’d have to find a source that explicitly says so.
  3. Ancient sources being what they are, there’s an overwhelming chance that the evidence you choose to support your theory will also contain significant elements that do not support it. Take a moment to reconcile this fact in a plausible manner. What criteria do you use to pick and choose?
  4. There will be lots of other significant pieces of evidence that contradict your hypothetical Jesus. Even literalist Christians have the Apocrypha to contend with, and most everybody else is comfortable observing widespread self-contradiction merely within the New Testament itself. Offer a reasonable standard by which evidence that contradicts your own position may be dismissed, and apply it to an example or two.
  5. Take at least a moment to explain how Jesus could have gone completely unnoticed by all contemporary writers (especially those of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Pliny the Elder, and the various Roman Satirists) yet is described in the New Testament as an otherworldly larger-than-life divine figure who was spectacularly publicly active throughout the region.
  6. Last, as validation, demonstrate your methods reliable by applying them to other well-known examples from history. For example, compare and contrast another historical figure with an ahistorical figure using your standards.

And, for everybody’s sake, please be brief. You shouldn’t need more than about five hundred words to outline your thesis. By way of example and for the sake of fairness, here are my own answers making the case for Jesus’s mythical nature:

  1. Jesus is a syncretic Pagan death / rebirth / salvation demigod in the mold of Osiris, Dionysus, and Mithras grafted onto Judaism.
  2. Justin Martyr, the very first of the Christian apologists writing in the early second century, devotes much of his First Apology to exactly this thesis. Indeed, once you eliminate all the prior parallels that he unambiguously identifies from Jesus’s biography, nothing else remains. Further, Lucian of Samosata describes “Peregrinus” as having been a con artist who interpolated Pagan religion wholesale into the nascent Christianity — and Paul’s introduction of the Mithraic (as identified by Justin Martyr) Eucharist into Christianity in 1 Corinthians 11 is a perfect example of this in practice, especially in the full context of the chapter.
  3. Justin Martyr’s explanation for the extensive imitation (his word) is that evil daemons with the power of foresight knew Jesus was coming and so planted false stories of Pagan demigods centuries in advance in order to lead honest men astray. His identification of the Pagan elements of Jesus’s story stand on their own; I do not think it much of a stretch to discount his supernatural explanation for the cross-contamination.
  4. At least superficially, the Gospels purport to be honest reporting of Jesus and his ministry as the God’s honest Capital-T Truth. However, again as described by Justin Martyr, they are nothing more than fantastic faery tales imitating well-known Pagan myths. The Gospel according to Matthew, for example, doesn’t merely report that Jesus died on the cross; in the same passage, he claims that the Sun was blotted out, the Earth shook, and all the graves opened and an horde of zombies descended upon Jerusalem. As such, even if the author sincerely believed he was honestly reporting factual history, the death reported clearly is not that of a mere mortal nor an historical figure. Such is the case for all other Gospel stories; the mundane events are an afterthought that only serve as insignificant vessels for the spectacular pyrotechnics. Concluding historicity from them is like concluding that Luke Skywalker was an historical figure because he grew up as an orphan on a farm.
  5. Jesus wasn’t noticed by his contemporaries because he hadn’t yet been invented — or, at least, he was just starting to be invented. The Pauline Epistles represent an early stage in that process when Jesus was more divine spirit than human interloper; the Gospels represent the point at which the Church later decided development was complete. (And the Angel Moroni represents Smith’s continued development.)
  6. What I propose of Jesus is no different from what virtually everybody would agree is true of all the Pagan demigods Justin Martyr identifies with Jesus — Bacchus, Perseus, Bellerophon on Pegasus, Mercury, Mithras, and all the rest. Examples of entirely mythical gods are legion in antiquity. We see the same pattern continue into modernity; Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard were historical figures, but the angel Moroni and Xenu are purest fiction. Similarly, the various authors of the New Testament texts were real humans, but the “stone soup” Jesus they collectively created over the course of a few generations is not.

For those who’re counting, that was just about five hundred words. Any case for an historical Jesus should be possible to make similarly succinctly…

…but I’ll predict right up front that the streak will remain unbroken, and not a single soul will attempt to meet this challenge. Oh, sure; there’ll be plenty of replies to this post, esepcially many arguing with my own mythicist argument. But of actual point-by-point responses to the challenge there will be none.

New Republic published my “Noah’s Ark” post

January 21, 2014 • 12:11 pm

Yay for The New Republic, which has just purchased and posted a slightly rewritten version of yesterday’s piece on the discovery of a pre-Biblical cuneiform account of an animal-filled Ark.  The TNR piece is called “A newly deciphered Babylonian tablet details plans for ‘Noah’s Ark,’” and can be found here.

Newly translated pre-Biblical tablet describes a great flood and a “rescue boat” with wild animals aboard—in pairs!

January 20, 2014 • 7:19 am

We’ve known since at least 1872 that the Great Flood detailed in Genesis is a descendant of earlier flood myths from Mesopotamia.  And there may be some credibility to the presence of at least some serious floods then, based on the fact that Mesopotamia is a giant flood plain and the presence of some archeological evidence for a big flood around 5000 BC. But what we didn’t know until now is that those earlier flood myths also incorporated a boat onto which species of wild animals were sequestered to save them—two by two!  This clearly shows, as if we didn’t know it already, that the Genesis story of Noah and the Ark isn’t true, but was simply an embroidery of earlier flood stories. (It will be interesting to see how Biblical literalists like Ken Ham react to this finding.)

This has all come to light since the recent deciphering of a clay cuneiform tablet first shown to curators at the British Museum in 1985, but not surrendered by its owner for translation until 2009.  Now the remarkable results are detailed in a book by Irving Finkel, Assyriologist and “assistant keeper” of ancient writings at the British Museum. Finkel’s book, The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood (released in the US on Jan 30, Kindle only;  already available at Amazon UK in hardback, Kindle, and paperback—the last for a tad more than 8 pounds). Finkel’s article (see below) is very well written, so I suspect his book will be a good read.

First, here’s Finkel (he’s Jewish), who bears a remarkable resemblance to both an aged Darwin with more hair, and an even closer resemblance to my friend at UC Davis, Professor Michael Turelli:

Irving Finkel (Photo: Benjamin McMahon)

Here’s the “Ark tablet” that Finkel and the British Museum finally got hold of four years ago. It contains 600 cuneiform characters and is dated between 1900 and 1700 BC, which makes it roughly a millennium older than the book of Genesis. According to Finkel, Genesis was assembled between 597 and 538 BC during the Jewish exodus in Babylonia:

The Ark Tablet, which dates from around 1900BC (Benjamin McMahon)

The remarkable story on this cellphone-sized table is detailed in two pieces in yesterday’s Telegraph: an interview with Finkel by science writer Tom Chivers: “Irving Finkel: reader of the lost Ark“, and a piece written by Finkel himself,”Noah’s Ark: The facts behind the flood.” There’s also a very positive review of Finkel’s book by James McConnachie in yesterday’s Sunday Times, but it’s not online (thanks to pyers for scanning it for me). The two Telegraph pieces are must-reads for visitors to this site.

Here’s a quick overview of what’s old and new; quotes from the articles are in italics:

  • We’ve known since 1872, from another cuneiform tablet that came to the British Museum, that there were Mesopotamian flood myths that long antedated the one in Genesis. Other tablets surfaced, and their contents are famously detailed in Tablets XI and XII of the Epic of Gilgamesh, written beginning about 2000 BC.
  • A bit about cuneiform writing: it’s apparently very complicated, with symbols that can stand for either words, syllables, grammatical phrases—and in more than one language.  Finkel has handled so many of these tablets that he’s learned to recognize individual scribes:

Finkel has been doing this for so long, and “met” so many of the same scribes over and over again, that he gets a sense of them as people. The Babylonian schools were filled with the same mix of troublemakers, bored kids and swots as modern ones, he says, which you can tell from the recovered tablets from children learning to read and write. And when you read a really learned, intelligent, experienced scribe, “you can really see a brain there, a brain that’s clever and can see meaning. They were very sharp.”

I ask him if he has any favourites, if any of the writers become almost friends. “You get cleverness and intellect, but what you don’t get, usually, is personal stuff,” he says. “You don’t get private writing, you don’t get spontaneous love poetry. So one is filled with admiration for these minds, and sometimes you wish you could bloody well talk to this guy so he could explain what he means, but not a feeling that you’d like to go for a pint with him or something.”

Occasionally, though, he finds that a scribe has missed a line in a long, copied document, and they’ve tried to squeeze it in in the margin, with an asterisk to mark the spot: “The device is familiar, that’s like us. And it’s that sense of the guy going ‘oh s—’ – that’s the moment you think you might like to buy this guy a pint and calm him down.”

  • The boat described as the earlier Ark was a huge coracle: a shallow round boat made from coiled ropes of palm fiber. Finkel describes it as being 230 feet in diameter (Chivers’s piece says 70 feet, but he must mean meters, since 70 meters is almost exactly 230 feet). The length of palm rope required for such a large boat would, says Finkel, stretch from London to Edinburgh. The new “Ark tablet” is quite detailed about the coracle’s construction:

Before the arrival of the Ark Tablet, hard facts for the boatbuilder were sparse. We have had to wait until now for the statistics of shape, size and dimensions, as well as everything to do with the matter of waterproofing. The information that has now become available could be turned into a printed set of specifications sufficient for any would-be ark-builder today.

Enki tells Atra-hasıs in a very practical way how to get his boat started; he is to draw out a plan of the round boat on the ground. The simplest way to do this would have been with a peg and a long string. The stage is thus set for building the world’s largest coracle, with a base area of 38,750sq ft, and a diameter of, near enough, 230ft. It works out to be the size of a Babylonian “field”, what we would call an acre. The walls, at about 20ft, would effectively inhibit an upright male giraffe from looking over at us.

Atra-hasıs’s coracle was to be made of rope, coiled into a gigantic basket. This rope was made of palm fibre, and vast quantities of it were going to be needed. Coiling the rope and weaving between the rows eventually produces a giant round floppy basket, which is then stiffened with a set of J-shaped wooden ribs. Stanchions, mentioned in lines 15-16, were a crucial element in the Ark’s construction and an innovation in response to Atra-hasıs’s special requirements, for they allow the introduction of an upper deck.

These stanchions could be placed in diverse arrangements; set flat on the interlocked square ends of the ribs, they would facilitate subdivision of the lower floor space into suitable areas for bulky or fatally incompatible animals. One striking peculiarity of Atra-hasıs’s reports is that he doesn’t mention either the deck or the roof explicitly, but within the specifications both deck and roof are implicit. (In line 45 Atra-hasıs goes up to the roof to pray.)

Here is a coracle, in a photo from the 1920s:


  • Finkel also notes that the tablet describes the boat as caulked with bitumen. Bitumen, of course, is a petroleum-like product, which is the fossilized and transformed remains of ancient microscopic creatures like diatoms. The Genesis Ark, too, was caulked with petroleum-like material, something that’s overlooked by Biblical literalists. If the earth is only 6000-10,000 years old, where did that caulk come from?
  • But the cool stuff is the two-by-two animals on the coracle. There couldn’t have been many species in a coracle that small, so we need a new science: Mesopotamian Baraminology! Finkel’s finding of the animal story is spellbinding:

At first sight, the very broken lines 51–52 of the Ark Tablet looked unpromising. The surface, if not completely lost, is badly abraded in this part of the tablet. I needed, then, to bring every sophisticated technique of decipherment into play: polishing the magnifying glass, holding it steady, repeatedly moving the tablet under the light to get the slightest shadow of a worn-out wedge or two. Eventually the sign traces in line 51 could be seen to be “and the wild animal[s of the st]ep[pe]”.

What gave me the biggest shock in 44 years of grappling with cuneiform tablets was, however, what came next. My best shot at the first two signs beginning line 52 came up with “sa” and “na”, both incompletely preserved. On looking unhopefully for words beginning “sana” in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, I found the following entry and nearly fell off my chair as a result of the words: “sana (or sanâ) adv. Two each, two by two.”

This is a very rare word among all our texts – when the dictionary was published there had only been two occurrences. To me, it is the world’s most beautiful dictionary definition.

For the first time we learn that the Babylonian animals, like those of Noah, went in two by two, a completely unsuspected Babylonian tradition that draws us ever closer to the familiar narrative of the Bible. (Another interesting matter: the Babylonian flood story in cuneiform is 1,000 years older than the Book of Genesis in Hebrew, but reading the two accounts together demonstrates their close, literary relationship. No firm explanation of how this might have really come about has previously been offered, but study of the circumstances in which the Judaeans exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar II found themselves answers many crucial questions.)

There is a further consideration raised by these two lines in the Ark Tablet: they only mention wild animals. I imagine domestic livestock might well be taken for granted, especially if some of the animals were going to be part of their own food chain.

Well, of course there’s no way they could have fit the world’s 7-million-plus species (in pairs) on either the Genesis ark or a 230-foot-diameter coracle, so of course literalists have to explain where the later species came from. The usual answer is “evolution” from a limited set of “kinds,” but this disguises the fact that evolution was admitted to occur! So what were taken on the Ark were a set “kinds” that split into all the species we know today.  The fruitless study of what the kinds really comprised is the subject of “baraminology,” which I mentioned above. It’s the world’s most useless (and, to a scientist, funniest) area of scholarly “research.”

The upshot is, of course, that the Ark story is fiction, which won’t surprise any of us. But when I debated those creationists in Arizona a while back, they all held firmly to the literalism of the Ark Story, and even had an answer to my question about “where did the pitch come from?” (answer: “We’re not sure that the word is accurately translated from the Hebrew”).

I haven’t done any Googling, but I suspect that Biblical literalists already have an answer to the striking similarity of the Genesis flood account to the Epic of Gilgamesh. Readers who know how they comport these should weigh in below.  But now the literalists have extra work to do: explaining why the Bible, which is the word of God, gives a description of animals boarding the ark two by two (or seven by seven for the “clean” animals), yet that very word of God describes similar (but not identical) things written in cuneiform a thousand years before God spoke. If you’re a fundie, you can say either that the cuneiform story was God’s first word, or that it was wrong in its details, and the Ark story is right. You’re screwed either way.

The solution, of course, is to recognize both documents as myths that probably embroidered real-life but smaller floods occurring thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia.

At any rate, have a look at Finkel’s book. Here’s the cover:

Finkel book

h/t: Matthew Cobb, pyers