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Medieval zombies? The curious tale of bones found in Wharram Percy

ByRéka Nagy

May 14, 2017

Chop off its head, set it on fire, bludgeon it until it stops moving. Movies and video games have shown us plenty of ways to deal with the living dead.

But research published by Historic England and the University of Southampton has revealed that villagers from the town of Wharram Percy, in Yorkshire, may have employed these techniques long before the rise (if you’ll pardon the pun) of the zombie trend.

Medieval superstition claimed that people who were cursed, died suddenly or committed evil deeds in life would rise from the dead as revenants. They could be stopped by breaking their legs, rendering them unable to move, or via decapitation.

This new research bridges the gap between folklore and reality, providing the first potential piece of scientific evidence for this practice in England.

The archaeologists studied 137 human bones that were excavated from the remains of the medieval village in the 1960s but have not been studied in detail until now.

The bones date from between the 11th and 14th centuries and belonged to at least ten people – men, women and children, ranging in age from just two to 50.

They were buried in three overlapping pits between houses (as opposed to the local graveyard) and were placed there on multiple occasions.

They have burn marks, cuts and breaks, particularly around the upper body and skull, caused by mutilation soon after death.

Could these have been the bones of outsiders that transgressed against the village?

Isotope analysis of their teeth, a technique which can ascertain an individual’s diet as they were growing up, revealed that they were locals.

Interestingly, the skeletons predate the witch hunts and the burning of heretics, which took place in the 16th century.

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.”

The team discussed cannibalism as another possible explanation, as this was not an uncommon practice in times of famine. The burn marks could be due to roasting and the presence of broken long bones could be due to the extraction of marrow.

However, the pattern of cut marks is inconsistent with this theory, as they cluster around the head and upper body instead of joints and major muscles. Cut marks on the remains of animals processed for food do not resemble the patterns seen on these human bones.

Revenants in medieval literature were invariably depicted as men, who were thought more likely to lead the kind of life that would lead to their return as restless dead.

It is therefore puzzling that women and children are well-represented among the remains at Wharram Percy. Without additional written and archaeological evidence, we may never know for certain whether these remains were due to hungry locals or a fear of the night of the undead.

I (jokingly) suggest the hypothesis of cannibalism followed by the attempt to stop the dead from biting back. If you’ll pardon the ‘tasteless’ pun.

Image: John Darch

By Réka Nagy

I am a PhD student at the MRC Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. I use large family-based datasets to unravel how genetics shapes our health. When I’m not busy writing scripts and analysing data, I communicate science through various formats. I’ve recently started designing my own evolution-themed board game using the prize from “I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!”.

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