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Book Notes: The Jewish Burial Ground at Jewbury, J. M Lilley, G. Stroud, D. R. Brothwell and M. H. Williamson

Barrie Dobson

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Book Notes The Jewish Burial Ground at Jewbury, J. M. Lilley, G. Stroud, D. R. Brothwell and M. H. Williamson (published for the York Archaeological Trust by the Coun? cil for British Archaeology: The Archaeology of York, The Medieval Cemeteries, 12/ 3, pp. 291-578, 1994). Twenty years ago the author of this review concluded a study of the Jews of medieval York (and of the notorious massacre there in March 1190) with the highly unoriginal observation that 'Le Jeubyry', a plot of land immediately outside the city's northeast walls, must have been the Jewish burial ground in York - quite probably for at least a century or so before the expulsion of 1290. 'It is therefore on that site, immediately west of the river Foss and now under the tarmac of an unusually unsightly civic car park, that archaeologists will no doubt one day disturb the posthumous tranquillity of Jews who had rarely been com? pletely tranquil while alive.' That so casual and even slightly sardonic a prophecy should have been fulfilled quite so rapidly still seems not a little surprising. Indeed, as Dr Peter Addyman, the Director of the York Archaeological Trust, now reveals in his preliminary account of the Circumstances of Excavation and Research', the famous Jewbury excavation of 1982-3 took almost everyone by surprise. No doubt no self-respecting archaeologist could readily have foregone the opportunity to embark on 'the only detailed study of a medieval Jewish popula? tion in England'; but whether the resources of the York Archaeological Trust would have financed so substantial an excavation if that opportunity had arisen ten years earlier or later now seems highly uncertain. Equally uncertain in their responses to the inevitable destruction of the Jewbury cemetery in the early 1980s were the attitudes of the Chief Rabbi and other members of the Jewish community in England as well as those many other authorities who showed 'a distinct unwill? ingness to become involved'. One idea mooted at the time was the creation of a memorial garden on the site; but in the event the demands of modern capitalism (the need for a multistorey carpark over the cemetery to serve Sainsbury's new store on Foss Bank) triumphed over all considerations. The York Archaeological Trust had time to investigate only approximately half of the burial ground; and now the only memorial to the Jews of medieval York at Jewbury itself is a plaque briefly visible to those who drive into a modern carpark perhaps only slightly less unsightiy than the one it has replaced. It follows that the only real memorial to the English Jews who were buried at York from the late 12th to the late 13th century is this volume itself. However strange and incomprehensible those Jews would have found it, a quite remarkable 237</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes memorial it is. Although the ethical debate about the propriety of disturbing the bones of our Jewish (and indeed Christian) ancestors will certainly continue, no one can fail to be impressed by what results may emerge when those bones are as meticulously analysed as they are here. The high standards of impartial scholar? ship displayed by all the contributors to this collection of specialist essays tends to militate against over-simple and sensational conclusions; and in many ways The Jewish Burial Ground at Jewbury is even more important as a demonstration of modern high-quality cemetery excavation techniques than as an investigation of specifically Jewish remains and burial practices. Indeed the latter have obviously proved extremely difficult to isolate and to distinguish; and the more thought the contributors to this volume have given to the Jewbury excavation (clearly a very great deal of thought indeed) the more cautious they have properly tended to become. Would it even have been possible to recognize Jewbury as a medieval Jewish cemetery at all had it not been for its placename and a reference to an antiquum cimiterium Iudeorum in the vicinity within a charter granted to the com? mune of York Jews in or about 1230? The answer to that critical question is fortunately, but perhaps only just, in the affirmative. Despite the speed at which the excavations had to be completed, enough burials and skeletons (almost 500) were recorded to provide the basis for a convincing composite analysis of the human remains which lay at Jewbury for over 700 years. It is of course important to stress that the excavation trenches dug in 1982-3 seem to have revealed only part of the central area within the full extent of the complete medieval Jewish cemetery. As a result, and despite the valiant efforts of Jane Lilley and her colleagues to resolve the various topographical issues at stake, it has proved by no means easy either to locate the probable boundaries of the burial ground or to estimate the numbers of Jewish skeletons (especially those of children) which escaped the archaeologists' attentions a dozen years ago. This issue is in some ways the most difficult problem to be faced, very ingeniously, by Professor Mark Williamson in his highly original use of the archaeological evidence to calculate the probable size of the medieval Jewish population in 13th-century York (a median figure of 260 for the total population; a median figure of 159 for those Jews aged 14 years or older). Needless to say, such estimates (higher than one might perhaps expect) ultimately depend on the two fundamental sections of this collaborative enterprise, devoted respectively to 'The Archaeology of Jewbury' and the 'Interpretation of the Excavated Remains'. Both are a positive pleasure to read, lucidly written and superbly illustrated. They both abound in unexpected revelations too, notably perhaps that medieval Jews at York were nearly always buried with their arms fully extended at the sides of the body. More interesting still is the great care taken at 13th-century Jewbury to avoid intercutting between graves, perhaps a reflection of the Jewish belief that bodies should not in any way be disturbed after burial. 238</page><page sequence="3">Book Notes It is, however, immediately apparent from these and other sections of this volume that analogies with other Jewish cemetery sites have proved exceptionally difficult to draw. No doubt the main reason for one's inability to place York's Jewbury within a secure historical and archaeological context is the scarcity of comparable findings from Jewish burial grounds elsewhere in medieval Europe. As Jane Lilley states the dilemma in one of her many essential contributions to this work, 'The principal problem when attempting to assess the cemetery at Jewbury in relation to other Jewish sites is the lack of large-scale excavated Jewish cemeteries'. Needless to say, it is precisely this 'lack' which makes The Jewish Burial Ground at Jewbury itself of such international as well as national significance, likely to be used as the locus classicus on the subject by all students of medieval Jewish cemeteries for the forseeable future. That said, it is also one of the most important consequences of the Jewbury excavations that they have helped to dispel the previously pervasive myth of uniformity in Jewish burial practice throughout medieval Christendom. Accordingly, to take a much debated example, Sarah Rees-Jones points out, in her brief but highly informative discussion of Jewish cemetery care and burial practice, that 'there appears to have been no single rule in governing the alignment of graves'. Similarly, the Jewbury excavation proved that the overwhelming majority of burials were within nailed rectangular wooden coffins or boxes, showing that the later Jewish tradition of all-wood coffins could not have been in force in 13th-century York. Much more surprising perhaps (and certainly highly disappointing for the historian of medieval Anglo-Jewry) was the complete absence of tombstones at Jewbury despite the fact that these were cer? tainly not uncommon in many Continental, and especially Spanish, medieval Jewish cemeteries. How far the absence of tombstones or any form of grave goods at Jewbury is a direct manifestation of the York Jewish community's own preferred burial prac? tices may in any case be open to doubt. It would hardly be surprising if Jews whose activities were so carefully regulated by the Crown and their Gentile neigh? bours when they were alive should have been subjected to careful supervision even when they were dead. Might such Christian supervisors of the York Jews as the significantly named Jacob de Cimiterio have insisted that the bodies of deceased Jews should be stripped of all obviously identifiable Herbraic associ? ations before their burial? This question, not in fact raised by the authors of The Jewish Burial Ground at Jewbury, is hardly likely ever to be resolved by document? ary evidence; but at least it should serve to remind us that the burial practices revealed at Jewbury may not have been immune from Christian control. May this possibility have a bearing on one of the most vexed issues arising from the Jewbury excavation, the alignment of the great majority of the skeletons? Professor Willi? amson's closely argued discussion of the problems here leaves no doubt that the general Jewbury alignment at Jewbury was from northeast to north, but leaves the 239</page><page sequence="4">Book Notes precise explanation for this unusual orientation largely undetermined. But then it is one of the greatest merits of this volume that it opens as many important questions as it resolves. So obvious a conclusion applies with particular force to those sections of The Jewish Burial Ground, perhaps the most fascinating of all, devoted to 'the popula? tion' of Jewbury. On the basis of the scrupulous analysis of 475 inhumations (a total of 36 measurements were taken on the cranium and mandible alone), it rapidly emerged that - as in various Christian cemeteries excavated at York - there were approximately equal numbers of male and female burials on the site. More impressive skill is Gillian Stroud's attempt to assign an estimated age at death to no fewer than 399 of the Jewbury skeletons. Dental attrition, the only method of age estimation used for adults, can hardly be a very accurate guide to this important topic; but until more sophisticated techniques for assessing a skel? eton's age at death emerge, Professor Williamson's suggestion that the life expectancy of York Jews at birth was approximately 24 years (increasing to a further 23 years at the age of 14) seems not unreasonable. At the least it seems safe to suppose - within a field which self-evidently calls out for more intensive biological as well as demographic study - that the majority of young Jewish adults (and especially of Jewish women) had every prospect of living into their forties. Nor, to the limited extent that even gifted modern archaeological investigation can reveal such matters, do the Jews of medieval York seem to have led abnormally unhealthy lives. Accidental (or deliberate) injuries seem to have been comparat? ively few; and although diseases ranging from periostitis to tuberculosis and from rickets to sinusitis were common enough, they were apparently not exceptionally so by the standards of medieval cemetery excavations as a whole. However, for many middle-aged readers of The Jewish Burial Ground at Jewbury, the plentifully illustrated pages devoted to the dental pathology of the Jewbury skeletons may produce the greatest frisson of all. 'Periodontal disease', we learn with no particular surprise, 'emerged as the most likely cause of tooth loss in older elements of the population'. Considerably more surprising is the discovery that scrupulous analysis of various types of caries may suggest that the 13th century Jewish community had distinctive facial features and patterns of oral disease. Minute investigation of dental enamel raises the further possibility, still of course to be proved, that at least some Jews practised a dietary regime dissimilar from that of their Christian neighbours. In one of the final and most important sections of this volume Gillian Stroud scrupulously reviews the arguments for and against 'the distinctiveness of the Jewbury population' as a whole. Although this daunting task forces her into such intricate issues as the evaluation of'changes to the internal surface of the skull', her final verdict is not completely inconclusive. In our present inadequate state of knowledge, it does indeed seem that the Jewish remains of 13th-century York display a number of physical features unusual among their Gentile counterparts. Can and should that all-important question be 240</page><page sequence="5">Book Notes left in its highly provisional state? If not, where and when - one wonders - will there be the next major excavation of a Jewish cemetery in medieval Christendom? This review is hardly the occasion for yet another prophecy. For the time being at least, congratulations to the members of the York Archaeological Trust must surely be in order for their admirable account of a uniquely interesting and signi? ficant medieval Jewish burial population, even if - as it transpires - the latter did not include the martyrs of 1190 among their number. Barrie Dobson</page></plain_text>