24 September 2022
The mediaeval Jewish graves
and cemetery found at a car
park in York 40 years ago
I have been writing in recent days about the Jewish community in mediaeval York, the horrific massacre at Clifford’s Tower in 1190, and the synagogues in mediaeval and contemporary York.
One of the most interesting insights into life and death in the Jewish community in mediaeval York was provided at Jewbury almost 40 years ago when archaeologists from the York Archaeological Trust discovered the lost cemetery of York’s mediaeval Jews at the site of what is now the multi-level car park at Sainsbury’s.
The cemetery in Jewbury is one of only 10 Jewish cemeteries in mediaeval England and the only one to be extensively excavated. It offers a glimpse into the lives and deaths of a what was once the largest and most prosperous Jewish community in England.
The site at Jewbury is outside the city walls, on a street leading from Monk Bar and Saint Maurice’s Road to Layerthorpe and Foss Bank and Foss Island’s Road.
The site of a mediaeval Jewish cemetery was unearthed in Jewbury almost 40 years ago. There were just a few documents suggesting that there was once a cemetery where holes were to be dug as part of new building in Jewbury. Archaeologists were called in to investigate the site before builders moved in.
Despite the lack of gravestones and the lack of traditionally nail-less Jewish coffins, the care that had been taken in the lay-out of the graves confirmed for archaeologists and modern religious Jewish authorities to agree this was a Jewish cemetery.
The cemetery was in use from around 1177 until the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. However, it does not appear that any of the victims of the massacre at Clifford’s Tower in 1190 were buried there.
Almost 500 skeletons were excavated in 1983, although it is estimated that the entire cemetery held over 1,000 burials.
Most of the burials were in wooden coffins, and there were few personal items, in keeping with Jewish tradition of simple burials. Surprisingly, the burials were aligned to the north-west, unlike the modern Jewish practice of orienting cemeteries east towards Jerusalem.
Mediaeval writers often refer to Jewish cemeteries as being the ‘Gardens of the Jews’ – hortus iudeorum – immaculately kept by a garden keeper. The York burial ground maintained these high standards. Unlike the haphazard burials in mediaeval Christian cemeteries in York, the graves in Jewbury were evenly spaced. It is thought the graves were have been marked in some way, but there is no evidence of tombstones or other grave markers.
One man, aged between 20 and 30, bears evidence of surgery in response to a deep wound to the front of his skull. Unfortunately, the injury was too severe and the man did not live long after the procedure.
In all, the archaeologists discovered about 500 mediaeval graves and the skeletons in them. They considered digging further to carry out tests on the bones and teeth and to discover more about the diet and health of the times.
The archaeologists felt they should do as the Chief Rabbi wished. However, this ended their research, as the advice they received was: ‘Whatever the scientific and historical loss … the dignity shown to humans even centuries after their death can contribute more than any scientific enquiry … to the respect in which human beings hold each other.’
The skeletons were removed to a Jewish mortuary and then returned to Jewbury for a burial supervised by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Immanuel Jakobovits, and members of York’s modern Jewish community in 1984, seven centuries after they were first buried.
The archaeologists had excavated only parts of the cemetery that were threatened by the car park construction. The remaining 500 or more burials of the Jewish cemetery in Jewbury continue to lie undisturbed under the Sainsbury’s car park in York.
As one of only 10 Jewish cemeteries in mediaeval England and the only one to be extensively excavated, the cemetery in Jewbury offered a glimpse into the lives and deaths of the Jewish community in mediaeval York.
Thursday: The massacre at Clifford’s Tower
Yeserday: The mediaeval and modern synagogues of York