By Karin Sczech
Last month we released a study examining the remains of the medieval Ashkenazi Jewish community in Erfurt, Germany. Our research has given us a better understanding of how this community lived in the Middle Ages.
In principle, according to the Jewish faith, burials take place for eternity and graves are only to be reopened if a reburial of the dead to Israel is planned. The integrity of the buried is also very important. Accordingly, archaeological investigations of Jewish cemeteries are rarely carried out.
In Erfurt a rescue excavation was necessary in 2013 at the medieval Jewish cemetery, as construction machinery had already disturbed the ground. In close consultation with the Jewish Community of Thuringia, anthropological investigations were also arranged after the excavations were completed. Due to various circumstances, these investigations were delayed longer than expected, so the skeletons were still in storage at the Thuringian State Office of Archaeology in Weimar when, in 2017, the Israeli geneticist Shai Carmi made a request to also conduct genetic investigations. There are very few Jewish cemeteries worldwide where this was possible.
After the expulsion of the Jews from Erfurt in 1453, the city first built a barn on the cemetery grounds and then a very large granary between 1464 and 1472. In the process, no consideration was given to the burials and all the graves were destroyed. The access ramp necessary for the conversion of the granary into a car park was built outside the building in 2013 on a previously undisturbed area of the cemetery. Only the 47 graves that would have been destroyed by the ramp were excavated. Other burials remained under the ramp.
It is highly probable that this area of the cemetery was established at the time of the second Jewish community, which existed from around 1354 to 1453. All the dead lay in coffins and some of them were found to have dress accessories.
One of the dead was killed by sword strokes, in the case of all the others the cause of death cannot be determined, but anthropological examinations show that the dead were relatively well-nourished and did not work hard physically. Nevertheless, numerous clinical pictures could be read, in large numbers for example on the teeth.
The genetic investigations revealed several families whose members were buried directly next to each other. The origin of the families can be determined mainly from two regions: Besides Central Europe, a group from Eastern Europe (Poland, Czech Republic) can also be determined. There lie the places from which, according to the medieval tax lists, several members of the second community came to Erfurt. Even more interesting is the possibility to determine the origin of the individuals through isotope analyses. The food intake can be used to determine where an individual grew up. In the case of the two families, it was possible to prove that the parents came from the east and the children grew up in Erfurt.
For geneticists, the greatest role in the investigations is naturally played by the great correlation of genetic developments – for example, the development of genetic defects that can still be found today in the modern Ashkenazi population. From the point of view of historians dealing with the history of the Jews in Erfurt, the results on, the questions about the emergence of the second Jewish community and ultimately the history of the individuals are of utmost importance.
It can be said that we have received another very important piece of the puzzle that further completes the picture of Erfurt’s significant second community. For the first community, we have the Synagogue, the Mikveh, the Stone house (a Jewish house from the 13th century) manuscripts, the Jews oath and the Erfurt treasure, gravestones and a few other sources besides the tax lists. Then we know quite a lot about the pogrom of 1349 which was the end of the community. For the second community the mikveh was repaired and used again now we know we have excavated a part of the cemetery which gave us a lot of information about the individual members. The written sources are better than for the first community because we have separate tax lists with information about at least some professions. Of course we also have gravestones but we cannot relate names in the sources with them.
I think the image of the puzzle fits quite well if you keep in mind that the parts of the puzzle give us very different information and can only be put together in interdisciplinary work.
Last year, the remains were reburied in the 19th-century Jewish cemetery on Nossenweg. The research team hopes that the Erfurt project will provide impulses that will enable further comparable investigations to be carried out throughout Europe, which may ultimately contribute to research into the migratory movements of Jews from late antiquity to the early modern period.
Karin Sczech now works for the City of Erfurt. She previously worked at Thuringian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments and Archaeology, where she took part in the study with Maike Lämmerhirt, Stefan Flohr, Shai Carmi, Shamam Waldmann and David Emil Reich. Their article, “Genome-wide data from medieval German Jews show that the Ashkenazi founder event pre-dated the 14th century,” is published in Cell. Click here to read it.
Top Image: Thüringisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie (TLDA) Ronny Krause