Bones reveal medieval fears of the ‘undead’

13 April 2017

HISTORIC ENGLAND

Tested evidence: part of an adult cranium showing burn marks

Tested evidence: part of an adult cranium showing burn marks

MEDIEVAL English villagers mutilated corpses to ward off the “living dead”, new research suggests.

In some cases, bodies were decapitated, and in others the bones were burned to ensure that the dead could not rise to threaten the living.

The remains had all been exhumed from a pit in the Yorkshire Wolds village of Wharram Percy, which was abandoned in the early 16th century. The site has been the centre of archaeological research since 1952, and has been the source of discoveries that shed light on English rural life from Norman times to the reign of Henry VIII.

Medieval folklore suggested that some people could rise from the dead, spreading disease, and assaulting anyone they met. They were understood to be the lingering malevolent life-force of individuals who, in life, had committed evil deeds or caused animosity. Contemporary writers described various ways of dealing with the “undead”, including digging them up, decapitating and dismembering them, and burning the remains.

In all, 137 bones were recovered from the pit, believed to be the remains of at least ten people who lived between the 11th and the 14th centuries.

At first, the experts from the Government’s heritage agency Historic England, which maintains the site, and from the University of Southampton, considered theories that the mutilation was carried out because the dead were outsiders, or that starving villagers had resorted to cannibalism.

Dental analysis showed, however, that the bodies were those of local people. The knife-marks on the bones were mainly in the head and neck area, whereas in cannibalism they tend to cluster around muscle attachments or large joints.

Simon Mays, a human skeletal biologist at Historic England, said: “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 findings are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.

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