If you think fear of a zombie apocalypse is a recent thing that requires an Internet connection and cable TV, think again. Archeologists in Yorkshire, England, found the first scientific evidence of medieval people mutilating and burning corpses to prevent them from rising from their graves.
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.
Wharram Percy is one of Britain's largest and best preserved deserted medieval villages and that’s where Simon Mays, skeletal biologist at Historic England, began the research that resulted in a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports with the aptly morbid title: “A multidisciplinary study of a burnt and mutilated assemblage of human remains from a deserted Mediaeval village in England.”
Why did the villagers of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire fear the walking dead? It could have been just a sign of the times – the 11th through 14th centuries were periods of disease, famine and invasions that probably had everyone looking over their shoulders for other humans who might attack them, infect them or possibly eat them. Yes, there was evidence that cannibalism was practiced during some famines and Mays and his fellow researchers first believed that the marks on the bones they inspected were the result of human bites and butchering, and the burn marks were from cooking.
However, closer inspection of the 137 pieces of bones – from at least 10 individuals aged 2 to 50 – that were found in the 1960s showsd the cuts and gouges were in the wrong places for cannibalistic meal preparation and the subsequent dining. In addition, the skulls and upper extremities seemed to have suffered the most butchering. According to Mays, that was a good indication of dismembering for another purpose … zombie prevention.
While many cultures dig up corpses and cut off their heads, break their legs or flip the bodies to face down to prevent them from rising as vampires, Mays says these appear to have been decapitated very soon after death while the bones were still soft. In addition, the cut-up body pieces were then burned, indicating these medieval villagers didn’t think face-down burial was adequate insurance against rising again.
Why were these corpses so feared? Mays thought they might have been outsiders – they were often blamed for bringing diseases or attacking villagers -- but tests on their teeth showed they ate the same food as the locals and most likely were from the same village.
The act of corpse mutilation to prevent zombies or revenants (revived corpses) was most likely tied to the Black Death, which hit hardest in the mid 1300s but recurred periodically until the latter part of the 1600s. Religious fervor and fanaticism rose with the plague as people looked for someone or something to blame. Perhaps Wharram Percy was especially hard hit -- it was deserted by the 1600s. Terrible times spawn terrible behaviors and this appears to be the first solid evidence of one of them, says May.
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.
Do you agree? If we were confronted with something as terrible as the Black Death, would we really act much differently?