A scientific study of human bones excavated from a deserted village in North Yorkshire has thrown light on the suggestion that Medieval people believed corpses could rise from their graves.
The remains, found in Wharram Percy, were studied by a team from Historic England and the University of Southampton, who concluded the corpses had been burnt and mutilated. Many of the bones showed knife-marks suggesting that the bodies had been decapitated and dismembered. There was also evidence for the deliberate breaking of some bones after death.
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.
The findings were published on Monday in an article by the team led by Simon Mays, Human Skeletal Biologist at Historic England, in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.