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Archaeologists discover medieval villagers in Yorkshire hacked up dead bodies to prevent them return

Their thigh bones were snapped in two and their heads cut off before being burnt.

Ten butchered skeletons are thought to offer the first concrete evidence that Medieval people hacked apart corpses to stop them returning as undead.

Cut bones, knife marks and evidence of scorching were found on the human remains, unearthed in a pit near the abandoned village of Wharram Percy, north Yorkshire.

Archaeologists discovered evidence of the mutilated corpses at the abandoned village of Wharram Percy in north Yorkshire with victims aged between four and 50

This fragment of rib bone was recovered from a burial pit and shows seven knife wounds

This part of a human tibia shows the impact point, pictured with the arrow, where the victim was attacked

Writers from the 11th century onwards had long described restless corpses or 'revenants' whose vile deeds while alive meant they would be restless in their graves.

Either their evil natures meant their bodies would spring back to life, or they were being reanimated by Satan himself.

Whatever the explanation, it was feared they would then crawl out of their graves, to spread disease and attack the living.

Beheading them, breaking their bones and setting them on fire was seen as a way to stop their foul return.

But until now, no human remains had ever been found to have been disposed of in this way.

A team from Historic England and the University of Southampton are thought to be the 'first good archaeological evidence of the practice' in the UK.

Simon Mays of 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.

Experts believe these bones provide evidence that villagers dismembered the corpses in an effort to stop them from crawling from their graves and return as killer zombies

Until now, no human remains had ever been found to have been disposed of in this way. This section of tibia suffered a spiral fracture according to experts who examined the scene

This image released by Historic England shows and artist's impression of daily life in the village of Wharram Percy

'If we are right, then this is the first good archaeological evidence we have for this practice.

'It shows us a dark side of Mediaeval beliefs and provides a graphic reminder of how different the Mediaeval view of the world was from our own.'

The findings are published today in an article by the team led by Simon Mays, Human Skeletal Biologist at Historic England, in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.

Dr Mays said the find was unique in Western Europe.

The only comparable remains are ‘vampire burials’ in Eastern Europe.

There, skeletons had been buried with stakes through the heart or other precautions such as sickles round their necks to stop them returning as vampires.

Analysis of the bones showed all of the victims were locals to the village of Wharram Percy (artist's impression pictured)

Dr Mays said he did not find dealing with the remains spooky as he does not believe in the supernatural.

He added: ‘This shows that medieval people are not just like modern people in funny dress. They are different in their outlook, very foreign to us.

‘The world was a threatening place to medieval people and not having a scientific understanding they struggled to come to terms with many things we take for granted.’

He said it was puzzling that the skeletons of children and women were found in the pit – as writings about revenants only mentioned male corpses coming back to life.

He added that given the beheadings and burnings took place over hundreds of years, ‘it is strange we have not found it elsewhere.’

The researchers said they did not find dealing with the remains spooky as they do not believe in the supernatural. This section of vertebra shows fire damage after the victim's head was chopped off

This bone shows evidence of three different chop marks which happened after death

Analysis of the teeth – measuring radio isotopes – show that the corpses all originated in the local area, and are similar to those of villagers buried in a nearby graveyard.

So these were not outsiders who were killed in battle, the authors suggest.

The corpses range from around four and 50 years old.

The remains represent people whose deaths 'span more than a century', the authors said.

The evidence for burning, cut marks and breakage 'indicates that they are the product of more than one event rather than that of a single episode of activity.'

This vertebra shows evidence of a knife wound, black arrow, and burning, white arrow

This section of skull from an adult also shows evidence of fire damage before it was buried

Explaining how Medieval people believed in reanimation, the authors said that it was a belief in a 'lingering life-force in individuals who committed malign, evil deeds and projected strong ill-will in life or who experienced a sudden death leaving energy still unexpended.'

Medieval author William of Newburgh wrote of a young man killed after committing adultery wandering a village who 'filled every house with disease and death by its pestiferous breath'.

The 'baneful pest', who would return to his grave at night, only stopped after he was dug up and burnt.

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.

This length of femur has been split in two as part of the anti-zombie dismemberment

This section of rib bone also shows evidence of knife wounds according to researchers

The deserted village of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire has provided the first evidence that medieval Britons were so afraid of zombies they dismembered corpses to stop them returning

'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.'

A further possibility that the authors explored is that the corpses were chopped apart in an act of cannibalism during a famine – with marrow sucked from thigh bones and their brains eaten.

But the team did not think this fitted the evidence.

In cannibalism, knife marks on bone tend to be found around major muscle attachments or large joints. At Wharram Percy, the knife marks were not at these locations but mainly in the head and neck area.

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.


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