Tales from the Tip: Medieval Garbage Pit Reveals Glimpse into Jewish Life

Tales from the Tip: Medieval Garbage Pit Reveals Glimpse into Jewish Life

I’m just kicking myself that I didn’t encounter this story until Passover ended. But I definitely can’t hold onto this fascinating archeological news until the next holiday; so please, feel free to imagine your own thematic tie-in here!
A team of researchers from the University of Bristol have recently published their findings from an archaeological dig in the medieval Jewish quarter of Oxford, UK, which they began in 2016. They were “blown away” by evidence, in a combination latrine and garbage dump at the site, of the Jewish community’s adherence to kosher dietary laws.
Jewish life in Oxford had a narrow window in which to flourish: between 1066, when William the Conqueror specifically invited Jewish merchants from the Continent to settle in England; and 1290 when Edward I expelled the Jewish population due to rising discrimination. While communities were well documented on paper, the Bristol team’s research is especially interesting because it’s the first scientific and physical evidence of specifically Jewish day-to-day life in the ancient city.
And the science itself is particularly cool: First, they studied the bones dumped in the pit after meals.
“‘Normally you would expect a mixture of cow, sheep, goat and pig,’ [biomolecular archaeologist and team leader Julie Dunne] says. ‘Instead, we found a massive, I mean massive, amount of chicken and goose bones.’

Crucially, none of the food remains found at the site came from pigs, shellfish or other non-kosher foods. […]

In addition to the bones, the team found more than 2,000 fragments of ceramic cooking vessels. They analyzed organic residue left in the pottery to determine what it had once held.
‘This process allows us to distinguish animal fats from ruminants and non-ruminants, as well as from dairy products,’ Dunne tells the Jewish Chronicle. ‘And what we found was astonishingly precise.’

The researchers found no evidence of non-kosher fats, or of milk and meat being cooked together – a practice prohibited by kosher tradition.”

The archeological evidence was also neatly siloed by time – the bird bones and kosher pottery dated to specifically the 11th and 12th centuries, while pig bones found nearby were determined to be 9th century and decidedly Saxon.
It is amazing what kind of information surfaces from past cultures’ tell-tale garbage dumps. (We might do well to remember that for ourselves!) I’m fascinated now by how this community’s least valued items have become its most important scientific documentation. Garbage has hidden worth after all!