From Babylon and China to the Czech Republic and Haiti, cultures around the world and throughout human history have whispered stories about the rise of the walking dead. Now researchers in the UK say they may have found evidence of one village’s attempts to keep that from happening. They published their report in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
JThomas via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
The site of the former Wharram Percy village is peaceful today, with grassy meadows and the picturesque ruins of St. Martin’s church. Nearly a thousand years ago, the scene was very different, as the remains of 10 people—including children—were burned, hacked with knives, and left in a pit outside the church cemetery.
This was not standard procedure. Historical records indicate that the people of Wharram Percy were peasant farmers and landowners, accustomed to laying their dead to rest with dignity.
So when archaeologists took a close look at the mutilated remains in the pit, they were mystified. What would inspire ordinary people to commit such violence against the dead? And who were the deceased, to inspire such gruesome acts?
To find out, they reviewed each cut and char mark on every single one of the 137 bones recovered from the site. They used radiocarbon dating to estimate the bones’ age, analyzed the chemical makeup of tooth enamel, and reviewed other archeological records, looking for other examples of this kind of attack on the dead.
Cuts and breaks in the Wharram Percy bones. Image Credit: Mays et al. 2017 in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports
The team determined that the bones had been laid to rest between the 11th and 13th centuries, and strontium isotope analysis of tooth enamel showed they’d belonged to locals. This latter fact immediately eliminated the most common explanation: that the deceased had been criminals, drifters, or other unwelcome visitors.
The angle, depth, and placement of the cuts in the bone, combined with the way they were broken and burned, eventually led the researchers to settle on two theories. Either these people were eaten by the villagers, or their mutilation was part of “an attempt to lay the revenant dead.”
Both options sound fairly extreme, and they are. But these were hard, lean times in Wharram Percy, and famine can drive people to do terrible things.
Still, close analysis of the bone damage made cannibalism seem unlikely. The cuts were made into the middle of bones, not butcher-style, at the joints.
“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,” co-author Simon Mays of Historic England told The Guardian.
Yet in their paper, Mays and his colleagues were less certain. “The evidence does not permit arguments to be advanced decisively in favor of either scenario, but it may be more consistent with attempts to lay revenant corpses than with starvation cannibalism,” they wrote.
The truth about Wharram Percy’s desecrated dead eludes us still. But TV producers, if you’re reading this: medieval zombies? Think about it.