Medieval villagers mutilated the dead to stop them rising, study finds

Archaeological research may represent first scientific evidence of English practices attempting to protect the living from the dead

A study by archaeologists has revealed certain people in medieval Yorkshire were so afraid of the dead they chopped, smashed and burned their skeletons to make sure they stayed in their graves.

The research published by Historic England and the University of Southampton may represent the first scientific evidence in England of attempts to prevent the dead from walking and harming the living – still common in folklore in many parts of the world.

One of the excavated human bones with arrows indicating the cut marks.
One of the excavated human bones with arrows indicating the cut marks. Photograph: Historic England/PA

The archaeologists who studied a collection of human bones – including the remains of adults, teenagers and children excavated more than half a century ago, and dated back to the period between the 11th and 14th century – rejected gruesome possibilities including cannibalism in times of famine, or the massacre of outsiders. The cut marks were in the wrong place for butchery, and isotope analysis of the teeth showed that the people came from the same area as the villagers of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire – a once flourishing village which had been completely deserted by the early 16th century.

The archaeologists studied 137 pieces of broken human bones, found in the pits of the village. Their conclusion, published on Monday in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, is that the most plausible explanation for the burn marks and cuts found on the skulls and upper body bones was deliberate mutilation after death. The scientists believe the intention was to keep the dead from walking and spreading disease or attacking the living.

Simon Mays, 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.”

He added: “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.”

Medieval sources offer various remedies for dealing with the restless dead, believed to be individuals who were evil or cursed in life and still bore a grudge against the living in death. Solutions included digging up and decapitating or burning the skeletons. The condition of the Wharram Percy bones suggests that the bodies were decapitated quite soon after death, when the bones were still soft, and burned.

Medieval village map

Only the ruined church, a few cottages, and a series of humps and bumps in the fields remain of Wharram Percy, once a prosperous village with two manor houses and dozens of more humble houses. It was extensively excavated in the 20th century, and is one of the best documented of thousands of villages which were eventually abandoned due to plague, depopulation, or changing agricultural practice.

The bones were from at least 10 individuals aged between two and 50, including seven adults, two of them women, and three very young children. They were excavated in the 1960s when archaeologists were investigating the foundations of a house, but had not been studied in detail until now. They were buried in three overlapping pits, between the houses, some distance from the church and graveyard.

An illustration of the medieval village of Wharram Percy in north Yorkshire, where human bones were excavated.
An illustration of the medieval village of Wharram Percy in north Yorkshire, where human bones were excavated. Photograph: Historic England/PA

The scientists rejected cannibalism – not uncommon in times of famine, and revealed at several English sites including the Ice Age human remains at Cheddar Gorge – as an explanation because those cut marks would typically be at the joints, not clustered around the head.

The scientists also wondered if the people represented by their fragmented remains could have been outsiders, regarded with suspicion by the villagers. However analysis of the isotopes in some of the teeth – which can give a distinctive signature revealing where the individual lived in childhood when the teeth grew – showed that they were very local.

Alistair Pike, professor of archaeological sciences at Southampton, said: “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.”

When the bones were found in the 1960s the archaeologists thought they were probably older than the village, and belonged to early Romano-British settlers whose remains were disturbed and reburied by the villagers. The truth has proved to be more sinister.

• This article was amended on 3 April 2017. An earlier version said the study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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