General view of Wharram Percy with church and medieval fish pond
General view of Wharram Percy with church and medieval fish pond © Historic England Archive. J910206.
General view of Wharram Percy with church and medieval fish pond © Historic England Archive. J910206.

New Archaeological Evidence Throws Light on Efforts to Resist “the Living Dead” in Medieval England

  • New scientific study of human bones published today supports belief that Medieval people thought corpses could arise from their graves, spreading disease and assaulting the living.
  • Bones show bodies were decapitated, dismembered and burnt. Theories that the bodies were treated in this unusual way because these people were viewed as outsiders or that their remains were cannibalised by starving villagers were considered but discounted by scientists.
  • It may be that the treatment of the bodies was meant to stop corpses from arising from their graves.
  • Finds are believed to be the 'first good archaeological evidence of the practice in Medieval times'.

New scientific studies of Medieval human bones excavated from Wharram Percy, a deserted village in North Yorkshire suggest that the corpses were burnt and mutilated. The researchers believe this was carried out by villagers who believed that it would stop the corpses arising from their graves and menacing the living.

A team from Historic England and the University of Southampton studied the remains and found that many of the bones showed knife-marks suggesting that the bodies had been decapitated and dismembered. There was also evidence for burning of body parts and deliberate breaking of some bones after death.

The findings are published today in an article by the team led by Simon Mays, Human Skeletal Biologist at Historic England, in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.

Medieval folk-belief

In Medieval times, there was a folk-belief that sometimes corpses could arise from their graves and roam the local area, spreading disease and violently assaulting those unlucky enough to encounter them. Restless corpses were usually thought to be caused by a lingering malevolent life-force in individuals who had committed evil deeds or created animosity when living.

Medieval writers describe a number of ways of dealing with revenants, one of which was to dig up the offending corpse, decapitate and dismember it, and burn the pieces in a fire. Perhaps the bones from Wharram Percy were parts of bodies that were mutilated and burnt because of Medieval fears of corpses arising from their graves. Historic England considered other theories but this explanation appears to be the most consistent with the alterations observed on the bones.

Outsider theory

In some societies, people may be treated in unusual ways after death because they are viewed as outsiders. However, analysis of strontium isotopes in the teeth showed this was not the reason here.

Alistair Pike, Professor of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Southampton, who directed the isotopic analysis explained: "Strontium isotopes in teeth reflect the geology on which an individual was living as their teeth formed in childhood. A match between the isotopes in the teeth and the geology around Wharram Percy suggests they grew up in an area close to where they were buried, possibly in the village. This was surprising to us as we first wondered if the unusual treatment of the bodies might relate to their being from further afield rather than local."

Cannibalism discounted

Famines were quite common in Medieval times, so another possibility seemed to be that the remains were of corpses that had been cannibalised by starving villagers. However, the evidence did not seem to fit. For example, in cannibalism, knife marks on bone tend to cluster around major muscle attachments or large joints, but at Wharram Percy the knife marks were not at these locations but mainly in the head and neck area.

Simon Mays concludes: "The idea that the Wharram Percy bones are the remains of corpses burnt and dismembered to stop them walking from their graves seems to fit the evidence best. If we are right, then this is the first good archaeological evidence we have for this practice. It shows us a dark side of Medieval beliefs and provides a graphic reminder of how different the Medieval view of the world was from our own."

The bones come from the deserted Medieval village of Wharram Percy, North Yorkshire, a site managed by English Heritage. There was a total of 137 bones representing the mixed remains of at least ten individuals. They were buried in a pit in the settlement part of the site. They date from the 11th-14th centuries AD.

Read the full article