Medieval 'synagogue' found in Surrey shop

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The Independent Online

Archaeology Correspondent

Archaeologists have discovered what they believe is Britain's only surviving medieval synagogue - hidden underneath a shop in Guildford, Surrey.

In north-west Europe it would only be the third synagogue known to have survived from medieval times, and had lain forgotten and buried for more than 700 years.

The site consisting of just one small yet beautifully decorated room, was a semi-private though purpose-built place of worship within a merchant's house. It was constructed in around 1180 and is believed to have been closed down in 1275 when Edward I's mother, Queen Eleanor, expelled the Jews from several English towns, including Guildford.

If the archaeologists are right, then - outside the Holy Land - it is one of the oldest synagogues ever found.

"The chronological and architectural evidence points on balance towards Jewish religious use," said Britain's leading authority on medieval English synagogue history, Joe Hillaby, of Bristol University.

"The elaborate architecture of the room strongly suggests a religious use, but its design and location make a Christian designation unlikely," he said.

"The only other religion in medieval England was Judaism and the design of the newly-discovered Guildford site is reminiscent of some other known medieval synagogues."

Particularly significant is the stone bench around the room, only interrupted by two entrances and four columns.

The evidence for activity in the room is concentrated in the middle of its eastern side - the place where the Ark containing the Torah Scrolls (the first five books of the Bible) would have been kept. A silver coin was found there along with scorch marks, probably caused by the naked flame of an oil lamp. According to Jewish tradition a lamp would have burnt perpetually in front of the Ark.

The date of the room - circa 1180 - also supports the synagogue idea. The Anglo-Jewish community was then at its most prosperous - and, according to the pottery and coin evidence, the room went out of use in or around the 1270s when the Jews were expelled.

The site was discovered by three archaeologists, John Boas, Mary Alexander and Kevin Fryer, of Guildford Museum archaeological unit, while investigating a shop basement. "We cleared a mass of rubble and soon found ourselves inside a room that nobody had seen for 700 years," said Mr Boas.

In 1278-79 almost all England's 3,000 Jews were arrested on trumped up charges of clipping silver off coins. About 500 were hanged and the others expelled in 1290.