York & North Yorkshire

Wharram Percy bodies mutilated to 'stop dead rising'

Knife marks on a bone Image copyright Historic England
Image caption Knife-marks on a rib fragment show attempts to "stop corpses rising from their graves"

Human bones excavated from a deserted medieval village in North Yorkshire show people mutilated and burnt bodies to stop them rising from the dead.

Knife marks were found on 137 bones dating between the 11th and 14th Centuries, discovered at Wharram Percy.

Experts said it was the first evidence of ancient practices to stop "corpses rising from their graves, spreading disease and assaulting the living".

The study was conducted by Historic England and Southampton University.

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'Dark side'

Researchers studied the remains of about 10 people and discovered the bodies had been decapitated and dismembered.

Knife marks were mostly in the head and neck area but there was also evidence for the burning of body parts and deliberate breaking of some bones after death, the team said.

Image copyright Historic England
Image caption An illustration of how Wharram Percy would have looked in the late 12th Century
Image copyright Historic England
Image caption Burn marks on an adult skull showed body parts were also burned

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 team ruled out a theory the remains were cannibalised by starving villagers because there was no evidence of knife marks clustering around major muscle attachments or large joints.

An analysis of teeth revealed the dead grew up near to where they were buried, dispelling a suggestion they were outsiders.

The findings have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.

Image copyright Historic England
Image caption Excavations at the abandoned medieval village of Wharram Percy started in the 20th Century

Wharram Percy, which lies between Malton and Driffield, in East Yorkshire, was excavated in the 20th Century.

It was once a thriving community built on sheep farming, but it fell into steep decline after the Black Death and was eventually completely abandoned.

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