Friday, May 29, 2009

England: Survey begins of Medieval Cemetery in Northampton

England: Survey begins of Medieval Cemetery in Northampton
by Samuel D. Gruber

Seventeen years after the collapse of a culvert in Midlands town of Northampton, England reveal five skeletons that were almost certainly associated with a medieval Jewish cemetery, the site is finally being surveyed. An article this month in the Northampton Chronicle and Echo reports that Marcus Roberts, Anglo-Jewish researcher and founder of JTrails, a network of Jewish heritage routes in the UK, is leading the project in conjunction with forensic archaeologists from Birmingham University. The paper quotes him as saying "This is potentially the last unexcavated known Jewish cemetery in the country and perhaps the only one accessible for study, so it is a site of huge national importance." The cemetery was situated in what is now Lawrence Court (in what is now the center of town) between 1259 and 1290.

There are no plans to excavate here. Only non-intrusive means methods will be used to glean as much information as possible about the history and plan of the site. Northampton officials must be aware of the heated controversies that surrounded the excavation of what turned out to be the medieval cemetery of York, and the ongoing debates about how to best treat long-forgotten medieval Jewish cemeteries in Spain.

According to information about the cemetery on the JTrails website, which offers virtual Jewish tour of Northampton, the cemetery site was identified found by Mr. Roberts in 1992

by profiling the typical site factors of the other known medieval Jewish cemetery locations in England, to create a typical location profile, in terms of factors such as the typical distance from the Jewry, relation to roads and access, drainage, enclosure type and size. This was then matched to the known historical facts about the cemetery, i.e. that it had been out side the north gate on St Andrew’s Priory land. The final element of the deduction was the use of a surviving highly detailed 17th century map, which accurately showed all of the former St Andrew’s land and enclosures. From this it was clear that only one location, a tiny poorly drained enclosure could be the site which was eventually developed into Temple Bar and Paradise Row. It was possible to move from the medieval enclosures to the modern street plan as virtually all of the streets ran on the former field boundaries in order to maximize developments within the individual field plots.

The confirmation of the identification came by chance months later in 1992, on the eve of the Day of Atonement, when a deep culvert collapsed revealing interments. The finds were in a hole in the roadway itself, close to the junction of Temple Bar with Maple Street. The general area of the cemetery is Temple Bar itself, and a former row of house forming Paradise Row. It is now an area of grass, and young trees immediately adjacent, to the north of the street.

The skeletons comprised of three to five individuals. The three main individuals identified consisted of a female, aged 40-44 years, and two males. Unfortunately little more could be deduced from the remains, except that one of the males suffered an arthritic condition. Later, Carbon dating revealed that dating range of the remains was almost exactly that of the period that cemetery existed and was in operation. Also archaeological research was able to eliminate the possibility it was some other cemetery and it is now identified in the archaeological record as a Jewish cemetery.

The archaeological report on the find, while recognising the relict enclosure argument, argues that the siting factor was waste land behind a medieval ribbon development of houses along the high-way, though both positions are not in reality mutually exclusive.
In its day the cemetery would have had a substantial wall, with a gate, surrounded by a deep ditch. The cemetery also had a house for funeral rites, and lodging for a watchman. The house probably lay on the highway, fronting, and concealing, the cemetery behind. There was probably a narrow entry to the gate off the side of the house. The burials would have been in neat rows, with male and female burials kept separate. Most burials would have had tombstones set facing outwards at the foot of the grave.

This spot today is admittedly unprepossessing, but one should remember that in olden days the cemetery had an essentially rural location, surrounded by fields, partly fronted by medieval suburban dwellings along the then King's Highway. .."

Mr. Roberts points out that if the site had not previously been suggested as that of the Jewish cemetery "it is likely that the site would have been declared an unofficial 17th-century non-Conformist burial ground, as had been assumed when the bones were first uncovered and not accorded any protection as an archaeological site."

Also in 1992, Roberts identified a gravestone in the collection of the Northampton Central Museum as coming from the cemetery. The matzevah remains the only medieval Jewish gravestone yet discovered in England. In form it resembles examples from the Rhineland.

A full account of the gravestone can be found in a report by Marcus Roberts in Medieval Archaeology 36 (1992), 173-178, also avaialable on-line.

The matzevah (see feature) is now a permanently on view, as part of a museum display about medieval Jewish Northampton. According to Roberts, it is made of "Barnack Stone brought all the way from the Barnack quarry near Stamford."

Photos of the cemetery site, the matzevah, the musuem exhibit and other Jewish sites in Northampton can be viewed in photo show.

The results of this survey will be very interesting, and if successfully informative will give impetus for the adoption of similar respectful methods elsewhere in Europe. Also of great interest and importance is how the site will be treated in the future.

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