800-year-old toilet reveals: British Jews ate herring, chicken, no pig

“We found that in the Jewish phase, there was no pig processing whatsoever. But in the Anglo Saxon phase, there was pig processing.”

Close-up of latrine structure 3.1, after removal of the south wall. (photo credit: OXFORD ARCHAEOLOGY)
Close-up of latrine structure 3.1, after removal of the south wall.
(photo credit: OXFORD ARCHAEOLOGY)
Jews in 13th century England enjoyed herring and chicken, did not eat pig, did not eat the hind part of cattle and kept separate pots for meat and dairy, all as Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) require, an archaeological excavation in Oxford has revealed.
Just a few years before the expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290, a Jewish man named Jacob, son of the revered scholar Rabbi Moses of London, owned an imposing property in Oxford, known as Jacob’s Hall. Eight centuries later, the discovery of the building’s latrine has offered an incredible glimpse into Jewish life of the time. Which, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not seem to differ much from that of today – at least regarding food.
“Around three years ago, there were some plans to build in a particular site in Oxford, literally at the heart of the city,” Dr. Julie Dunne from the University of Bristol told The Jerusalem Post.
“A colleague of mine had done a lot of working looking into the ‘Hundreds Roll” – essentially a medieval property census where every house was noted for tax purposes,” she said. “She was able to find that this particular area of Oxford was inhabited by the Jewish community, and we were able to know which house belonged to each family.”
Dunne, the lead author of the paper recently published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, explained that the archaeologists located the latrine of the house from the relevant period of time, which included a waste dump, as well as a deeper and more ancient layer dating back to the Anglo-Saxon period.
“First of all, we found many animal bones. In a normal assemblage in a medieval household in England, you would find the typical domesticated animals such as cow, sheep and goat, pig and poultry,” Dunne pointed out.
“What was really interesting was the fact that here pig was completely absent, while there was a massive amount of geese and chicken bones. This is the first time an assemblage of this kind has been found in the UK.”
The researchers were able to identify additional elements consistent with Jewish dietary laws.
The archaeologists uncovered several fragments of unglazed ceramic pots, the typical cooking vessel of the time.
“If you were to put some pieces of meat in a pot with some water and boil it up, you’d see little flat fat globules floating on the top. Those fat globules are called lipids,” Dunne explained. “These fats are preserved in the vessel’s walls.”
View of excavations at St Aldates, Oxford, showing Carfax Tower in the background. (Photo credit: Oxford Archaeology)View of excavations at St Aldates, Oxford, showing Carfax Tower in the background. (Photo credit: Oxford Archaeology)
By analyzing pieces of potsherds, the scientists were able to determine which type of fatty acids and therefore which animals were cooked in each pot. The pots found in the remains of Jacob’s house were only used to cook kosher animals, except for one vessel that was only used for dairy.
“We found that in the Jewish phase, there was no pig processing whatsoever. But in the Anglo Saxon phase, there was pig processing,” Dunne said.
In addition, the researchers noticed the absence of the hind leg bones of cattle, a part of the animal which cannot be eaten under kashrut laws.
“It suggested to us that the animals were butchered according to Jewish law,” Dunne added.
Fish remains found also appeared consistent with Jewish practices. Some herring bones were uncovered, but no eel, a popular staple in medieval England that is not kosher.
Jacob son of Moses died in 1277 and the property was confiscated by the Queen, Eleanor of Castile. Twelve years later, King Edward I would expel Jews from England. They would be formally readmitted only in 1655 by Oliver Cromwell.
Four centuries later, those who settled in the country likely did not eat pig nor mix meat and milk, as their ancestors didn’t – and as many Jews still don’t today, another 400 years later.