Knife marks on the outside surfaces of two rib bone fragments. (Image Credit: Historic England)
Knife marks on the outside surfaces of two rib bone fragments. (Image Credit: Historic England)
History

Archaeologists Found That in Medieval Times Some Corpses Were Burnt and Mutilated to Prevent Them From Coming Back as the “Living Dead”

Researchers from the University of Southampton and Historic England excavated medieval human bones from the Wharram Percy village in North Yorkshire and found the corpses they came from were mutilated and burnt. The research team postulates that this was done by villagers who thought that it would prevent the corpses from climbing out of their graves and threatening the living.

The researchers discovered that many of the bones had knife marks on them, pointing to the bodies being dismembered and decapitated. Evidence was also found of deliberate breaking of some bones and the burning of body parts after death.

The Journal of Archaeological Science Reports published the findings. Simon Mays, a Human Skeletal Biologist at Historic England led the research. He collaborated with Alistair Pike, a Professor of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Southampton.

There was a folk belief in medieval times that corpses could rise from the dead and rove around the area, viciously attacking those unlucky enough to encounter them and spreading sickness. It was also generally believed that restless corpses were caused by a remaining malicious life force in individuals who had created animosity, or committed evil deeds while still alive.

Writers in medieval times propose a number of ways of dealing with the restless souls. One recurring theme is to dig up the aberrant corpse, dismember and decapitate it, and then burn the pieces in a fire. It is possible that the bones from Wharram Percy were from parts of bodies that were maimed and burnt because of medieval fears of cadavers rising from their graves. The researchers did look at other theories, but this explanation appears to be the most consistent with the markings found on the bones.

Right parietal from an adult cranium showing burn marks. (Image credit: Historic England)
Right parietal from an adult cranium showing burn marks. (Image credit: Historic England)

In some societies, people are treated in uncommon ways after they die because they are viewed as being outsiders. Analysis of strontium isotopes in the teeth did however show that this was not the reason in this case. Professor Alistair Pike directed the isotopic analysis and explained that strontium isotopes in teeth reveal the geology on which a person was living in childhood when their teeth were formed. As the isotopes in the teeth and the geology around Wharram Percy matches, it is likely that they grew up in the area near to where they were buried, possibly even in the same village. This result surprised the team, as they first thought that the unusual treatment of the bodies was related to them being from further afield rather than local.

As famines were common in medieval times, it could have been that the remains had been cannibalized by starving villagers. The evidence did however not fit this scenario as the knife marks were mainly in the head and neck area. In cases of cannibalism, knife marks on bone tend to cluster around major muscle attachments or large joints.

A mid-lower thoracic vertebra, displaying two relatively parallel knife cuts. (Image credit: Historic England)
A mid-lower thoracic vertebra, displaying two relatively parallel knife cuts. (Image credit: Historic England)

Mays concludes that the evidence definitely points to the Wharram Percy bones being the remains of corpses dismembered and burnt to stop them walking from their graves. If this were correct, this would be the first good archaeological evidence that shows that this practice existed. It provides a striking reminder of how different the medieval view of the world was from our own and shows a dark side of medieval beliefs.

Model drawing (By Peter Dunn) of Wharram Percy from north of North Manor & peasant houses, crofts and tofts in late 12th century. (Image Credit: Historic England)
Model drawing (By Peter Dunn) of Wharram Percy from north of North Manor & peasant houses, crofts and tofts in late 12th century. (Image Credit: Historic England)

The deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy, North Yorkshire, where the bones were found, is a site managed by English Heritage. One hundred and thirty-seven bones were found, coming from the mixed remains of at least ten individuals. They were buried in a pit in the settlement part of the archeological site and date from the 11th-14th centuries AD.

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