New Jewish Museum opens with MOLA find on display

MOLA team

In 2001, archaeologists from the Museum of London excavated a mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, at Milk Street in the City of London. Now, members of the public will be able to view this rare and significant structure firsthand as the refurbished Jewish Museum opens today in Camden Town. The Jewish Museum describes the mikveh as “one of the most important archaeological finds relating to Anglo-Jewry”.

A mikveh (plural mikva’ot) is a small subterranean bath filled with water collected by natural means (mikveh is Hebrew for “a collection of water”). People immerse themselves in a mikveh to achieve spiritual cleanliness or purity in a variety of ritual contexts. For this reason, mikva’ot are often attached to synagogues.

The mikveh found at Milk Street was located within the rear portion of a private house, and dated from the 13th century. The bath consisted of seven stone steps leading down into a small apsidal bath lined with high quality Greensand ashlar. The stonework of the bath was beautifully carved, with very narrow and tight-fitting joints between the individual ashlar blocks, presumably to make the structure watertight.

The mikveh was abandoned following the expulsion of the Jewish community from England in 1290. At that time, the Milk Street property was occupied by a Jew, Moses Crespin, who had inherited it from his father Jacob. The Crespins were leading London financiers.

The discovery of the mikveh caused tremendous excitement in Jewish communities in London and further afield. Thanks to funding from the Bevis Marks Synagogue, the mikveh was dismantled block-by-block by Museum of London conservators so it could be rebuilt in a suitable setting. It was stored at the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre for several years, before being installed on the ground floor of the new and recently opened Jewish Museum.

The Milk Street mikveh, along with the less substantial remains of one discovered nearby at 81-87 Gresham Street in 1986, are the only medieval examples of this type of feature known in England.

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