The discovery of mutilated and burnt human bones in an English grave pit supports the theory that medieval villagers thought the dead could rise from their graves, spreading disease and attacking the living.
Knife-marks on external surfaces of two rib fragments. (Image: Historic England)
A new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science shows the extent to which medieval Englanders sought to prevent a zombie apocalypse. An analysis of over a hundred bones dating from the 11th to the 13th century shows signs of decapitation, dismemberment and burning. These mutilations were inflicted onto the bodies after death, which suggests the villagers were actively trying to prevent the bodies from being able to rise from the grave. The archaeologists who conducted the study considered alternative theories, such as cannibalism or the fear of outsiders, but they say the zombie theory fits best with the evidence.
The notion that medieval people lived in fear of zombies did not come from thin air. Medieval scripts describe ways to deal with "revenants", such as digging up potential zombies, cutting off their heads, ripping apart their limbs, and burning pieces in a fire. Medieval folk believed that a malevolent life-force could take root in a dead individual, particularly among those who committed evil deeds or created animosities when they were still alive.
For the study, a collaborative research team from Historic England and the University of Southampton analysed 137 bones found in a grave pit at the medieval village site of Wharram Percy, England, in what is now a deserted village in North Yorkshire. The bones represent 10 individuals of both sexes, ranging in age from two to 50 years old at the time of death. The bones showed signs of breakage, burning and knife marks on the upper body. These mutilations were traced to multiple events, and not just one isolated incident.
A possible theory is that the remains belonged to outsiders of the community, leading to suspicion and unusual burial practices. But study co-author Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, doesn't believe this theory fits with the evidence.
Skull fragment showing burn marks. (Image: Historic England)
"Strontium isotopes in teeth reflect the geology on which an individual was living as their teeth formed in childhood," Pike explained in a statement. "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."
It's also possible that the villagers resorted to cannibalism during times of famine, but again, the evidence doesn't fit. In particular, knife marks in cannibalised remains tend to cluster around major muscle attachments or leg joints, but in these remains, the knife marks were located around the head and neck area.
"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," study co-author Simon Mays said. "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."
It may be "the first good archaeological" evidence, but it's still a bit circumstantial. It's possible that these individuals were criminals, or from some other unknown commonality. The etchings and mutilations might also represent an unknown ritualistic practice, and possibly one specific to this village. More evidence, both from other grave sites and in written texts, would go a long way to further these claims.
One thing that's fairly certain, however, is that the fear of the undead goes back a long way.