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Found: First Evidence in England of Burning Dead Bodies to Keep Them From Rising

In medieval times, belief in revenants was widespread.

A Wharram Percy bone showing knife cuts.
A Wharram Percy bone showing knife cuts. Historic England

Hundreds of years ago, in North Yorkshire, England, there was a small village called Wharram Percy. There were two rows of houses, one shorter than the other, and church, with a churchyard, but they’ve long since disappeared. By the 16th century, the village was abandoned.

In the 1960s, when archaeologists worked to excavate the village, they found a strange group of human bones. These bones were buried outside the churchyard, near the end of one row of buildings. There were 137 bones in the excavated pit, belonging to at least 10 people, ranging in age from 2 or 3 to 50.

For many years, no one knew exactly what to make of these bones, but now a team of archaeologists from Historic England and the University of Southampton have published a new theory about them: these bodies were burned and mutilated after death to keep them from becoming reanimated corpses.

An aerial view of Wharram Percy.
An aerial view of Wharram Percy. Historic England

In a new study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the archaeologists examine the burn and cut marks left on the bones. Most often, the bones with burn marks were cranial bones; the bones with cut marks usually came from the upper body. Most of those cut marks were fine lines—cuts made by knives, rather than chop marks of swords or axes. Some of the corpses may have been decapitated.

The people buried in the pit died over the course of many years from the 12th to 14th century—over a range of more than 100 years overall. Previously, archaeologists thought the bones may have belonged to strangers to the village, but the new report includes analysis of teeth suggesting that these people came from the same area. Sometimes cut marks indicate that people died in battle, but these marks weren’t consistent with that kind of death. So what was going on here?

The archaeologists zeroed in on two possible theories. Perhaps the cut marks and burns on the bones were evidence of cannibalism; perhaps they were mutilations intended to keep the bodies in their graves. In the paper, they argue that the marks they studied are not consistent with cannibalism; most likely, they argue, the marks were made by people trying to keep “revenants”—walking corpses—from their nightly rounds.

Belief in revenants was widespread in Mediaeval northern and western Europe. Revenants were usually malevolent, spreading disease and physically assaulting the living,” they write. “Reanimation arose as a result of a lingering life-force in individuals who committed malign, evil deeds and projected strong ill-will in life, or who experienced a sudden death leaving energy still unexpended.”

There’s textual evidence and folklore showing that people at this time in England believed in the walking dead and would resort to mutilation and burning to stop them. The belief was that corpses could only reanimate for a short time after death, so these practices were a way of hastening the destruction of the corpse.

But previously there hasn’t been strong archaeological evidence for this practice. In folklore, revenants were most often men, so the presence of the bones of women and children in the pit weighs against this explanation. Right now, though, it’s the strongest one. “If we are right, this the first good archaeological evidence we have for this practice,” Historic England’s Simon Mays told The Guardian.