Excavating the Oxford Jewry

In 2016, excavations in the city uncovered the first evidence of a Jewish dietary signature in the British zooarchaeological record.

In 2016, excavations on the corner of Queen Street and St Aldates, which was once the heart of the burgeoning medieval urban centre of Oxford, uncovered some of the earliest-known Anglo-Saxon structures, and the first evidence of a Jewish dietary signature in the British zooarchaeological record.

The report was recently published in February 2021; however, Edward Biddulph, one of the researchers and authors of the study, explained the findings to Current Archaeology back in 2019. You can read his article here.

This stone-lined latrine (shown close-up above) yielded a treasure trove of rubbish, including animal bones that held vital clues to the religious practices of the site’s inhabitants. Photo: Oxford Archaeology.

Oxford Archaeology unearthed the remains of two Anglo-Saxon structures at St Aldates. Radiocarbon analysis dated the first structure to the 8th-10th century AD, whilst the other spanned the 7th-9th century cal AD.

The team was also able to uncover the 11th-12th century phase at the site, which corresponds with the establishment of the Oxford Jewish Quarter. Excavators found the remains of two houses, which were identified through a medieval census as having been in Jewish ownership.

A stone-built latrine was found outside one of the houses, and a remarkable animal-bone assemblage discovered within was then compared with Jewish dietary law (Kashrut).

The dominance of skeletal fragments from domestic fowl, and the absence of pig specimens and species of fish other than herring, which is kosher, provides evidence that the inhabitants followed a Jewish diet.

Scientists from the University of Bristol carried out organic residue analysis of medieval pottery fragments found in the latrine. It revealed that the pots were not used to cook or prepare pork, and specific pots were dedicated to the processing of meat or dairy.

‘Until now, no Jewish signature had been identified in British zooarchaeology,’ said Edward Biddulph.

He added: ‘The results of the excavation at St Aldates and Queen Street have been astonishing not only in terms of their having revealed rare archaeological evidence of a medieval Jewry in Britain, but also for demonstrating the enormous value of carefully focused analysis that combines traditional finds and stratigraphic analysis with scientific techniques.’