Exhibit of the Week: Wharram Percy

Artists impression of the mediaeval village of Wharram Percy in its heyday, by Stephen Conlin.
Artists impression of the mediaeval village of Wharram Percy in its heyday, by Stephen Conlin.

In the heart of the Yorkshire Wolds lies the deserted village of Wharram Percy. Abandoned for the past 500 years, the site is cared for by English Heritage, providing a fascinating backdrop to visitors, as well as ramblers, who take advantage of the location of this unique site. The remains of Wharram Percy continue to provide rich archaeological 
evidence of the site’s history even today and following extensive research on bones found at the site by Historic England, we continue to learn about the Mediaeval period.

In Mediaeval times, there was a folk-belief that sometimes corpses could arise from their graves and roam the local area, spreading disease and violently assaulting those unlucky enough to encounter them. Restless corpses were usually thought to be caused by a lingering malevolent life-force in individuals who had committed evil deeds or created animosity when living.

Mediaeval writers describe a number of ways of dealing with revenants, one of which was to dig up the offending corpse, decapitate and dismember it, and burn the pieces in a fire. Perhaps the bones from Wharram Percy were parts of bodies that were mutilated and burnt because of Mediaeval fears of corpses arising from their graves. Historic England considered other theories but this explanation appears to be the most consistent with the alterations observed on the bones

These new scientific studies of Mediaeval bones excavated from Wharram Percy suggest that corpses buried near the village were burnt and mutilated. The researchers believe this was carried out by villagers who believed that it would stop the corpses rising from their graves and menacing the living. A team from Historic England and the University of Southampton studied the remains and found that many of the bones showed knife-marks suggesting that the bodies had been decapitated and dismembered. There was also evidence for burning of body parts and deliberate breaking of some bones after death. The findings have been published in an article by the team led by Simon Mays, Human Skeletal Biologist at Historic England, in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.

Historic England considered other theories but this explanation appears to be the most consistent with the alterations observed on the bones. Other theories considered include in death people were treated differently as they were considered outsiders, or cannibalism. The latter was discounted due to the fact that knife marks associated with cannibalism are usually clustered around muscle attachments or large joints, but at Wharram Percy the knife marks were not at these locations but mainly in the head and neck area.

Simon Mays concludes: “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 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.”

Historic England’s research was based on 137 bones representing the mixed remains of at least ten individuals. They were buried in a pit in the settlement part of the site, dating from 11th – 14th centuries AD.