Zombie invasion fears in medieval Yorkshire: Villagers mutilated bones to stop rise of the living dead

Henry Bodkin
Fans of the Walking Dead TV series attend the Walker Stalker Con at Kensington Olympia in London  - www.alamy.com

Terror of a midnight zombie invasion may be assumed to have no place outside the genre of cheap 20th century horror films.

But new analysis of medieval bones has shown that, in one North Yorkshire village at least, the inhabitants really did quake in fear of a night of the living dead.

It shows us a dark side of medieval beliefs

Simon Mays, Historic England

The condition of 137 bones found at the site of the long-deserted settlement of Wharram Percy, which indicates the bodies had been mutilated and burnt, had been a source of puzzlement.

However, scientists now believe they represent the first sound archaeological evidence in England of belief in the undead.

Theories that the strange treatment of the 10 bodies, thought to date from between the 11th and 14th centuries, was due to the dead people being mistrusted outsiders or the victims of cannibalism have been debunked.

Fractured: a knife-marked rib fragment recovered from Wharram Percy Credit: Historic England/PA

Instead, the finds appear to point to a superstitious practice of damaging corpses to stop them rising from their graves and menacing the living.

The team from Historic England and the University of Southampton found that many of the bones had knife marks, suggesting the corpses had been decapitated and dismembered; they also found evidence of burning and deliberate breaking of bones after death.

Writing in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports, the experts say this correlates with Middle Ages folklore suggesting people can sometimes rise from the dead, commit acts of violence and spread disease.

Medieval Wharram Percy Credit: Historic England/PA

The state of the bodies also matches Medieval writings which describe various ways of dealing with the living dead, such as decapitation and burning.

The team reported that analysis of teeth found in the pit show the corpses came from the same area in which they were buried, discounting the theory they were outsiders.

The bones also appeared to lack the cluster of knife marks around major muscles that are often found in instances of cannibalism.

Knife marks on a fourth cervical vertebra Credit: Historic England/PA

Simon Mays, 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 undead were commonly thought to be the result of a lingering malevolent life-force in individuals who had committed evil deeds or caused animosity when they were alive.

The deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire, where human bones were excavated Credit: Historic England/PA

Since the 1930s, Hollywood has helped to popularise the concept with films such as White Zombie in 1932, or most famously George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968.

The word “zombie” is thought to have first entered the English language in poet Robert Southey’s 1819 History of Brazil.

Image issued by Historic England illustrating life in the medieval village of Wharram Percy  Credit: pa

 

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes