I'm so used to reading news and even published articles that don't properly report on "determination" of "ethnicity" from skeletal remains that I was taken aback by today's BBC article: "Jewish bodies found in Medieval well in Norwich." In the very first paragraph, it is reported that the researchers used "a combination of DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies," and those few words make the entire remainder of the article seem reasonable.
|Freaky-deaky reconstruction of bodies|
in the well. Credit: BBC News.
I'd really like to know what their evidence is that these people were Jewish -- I am assuming it's drawn from the DNA analysis, which can show genetic affinities with known populations from different areas of the world. Or perhaps it's based (partly) on the "bone chemical studies," which I take to mean the now-standard complement of Sr/O/C/N? If it's based on more than burial style and head shape, the attribution is already on steadier ground than that of the "Leper Warrior." Still, DNA tells us about biology, not culture. It can tell us whom we're similar to biologically but cannot tell us whom we're similar to culturally. Were the 17 people in the well in Norwich Jewish? It's incredibly difficult to say that with any certainty, but a combination of DNA evidence, anomalous burial style, and historical records could definitely convince me.
I couldn't find a published paper on these skeletons, which isn't terribly surprising since the BBC report is in service of a TV special that aired tonight called "History Cold Case: The Bodies in the Well". If any of my British readers happened to catch the show (or want to watch it online), I'd really appreciate a summary of the techniques they used!