A farmers’ site in Yorkshire offers clues to archaeologists about fears in 11th to 13th century England.

Life in Wharram Percy, land of zombies.

Wharram Percy was a small town near Yorkshire. Between the 11th and 13th centuries it was inhabited by farmers, until it was deserted. Now a group of archaeologists have literally unearthed the reasons why the town was abandoned: the fear of the appeared, in English, the revenants.

Simon Mays of the University of Southampton and his team discovered severed and burned bones postmortem. These habits are not uncommon, since upper-class corpses used to have their heads or hearts removed and buried separately, as a tribute. However, this hypothesis did not fit in an area inhabited by popular classes. “The idea that Wharram Percy’s bones are the remains of bodies burned and dismembered to prevent them from rising from their graves seems to fit better with the evidence,” Mays revealed to The Times.

One of the vertebrae found in Wharram Percy.

One of the vertebrae found in Wharram Percy.
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports

His study has just appeared in the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Zombie mythology was obviously not born with Hollywood. In the British Isles, as in other parts of northern and western Europe, the fear of corpses coming back to life began to hatch around the 11th century, although some authors have suggested earlier dates. At the end of the 12th century, the monk William of Newburg relates that in the city of Berwick, the body of a revenant was walking at night, and that his visits only stopped when the young people of the town unearthed the body, dismembered it and burned the pieces in a bonfire. This and other similar anecdotes are what have led Mays and his team to think about the zombies of Wharram Percy.

Curiously, already in medieval times the same theory was used about the appearance of these beings: they were not skeletons, but corpses in a state close to putrefaction. “In medieval texts, the ghost is a body with flesh rather than a skeleton, since it is only in that border period between death and the decomposition of the flesh that the body presents a threat,” the authors explain in the study.

It is not the first time that something like this has happened in the British Isles. In 2011, a similar site in Ireland also found bodies with a large stone embedded in the jaw.