Medieval folk ‘feared zombie apocalypse’

Analysis of the bones dating from the 11th to 14th centuries, which were excavated from a pit within the settlement at long-abandoned Wharram Percy, show they appear to have been burnt and mutilated.


Theories that the strange treatment of the bodies was down to the dead people being outsiders or that the remains were cannibalised by starving villages have been discounted by experts.

Instead the finds appear to represent the first good archaeological evidence of practices aimed at stopping corpses rising from their graves and menacing the living.

Folklore in the Middle Ages suggested people could sometimes rise from the dead, roam their local area, spread disease and violently assault those who encountered them.

The undead were commonly thought to be the result of a lingering malevolent life-force in individuals who had committed evil deeds or caused animosity when they were alive.

Medieval writers described various ways of dealing with the living dead, including digging up the offending bodies, decapitating and dismembering them and burning the pieces in a fire.

A team from government heritage agency Historic England and the University of Southampton studied 137 bones found in the village, representing the mixed remains of at least 10 people.

They found many bones had knife marks suggesting the corpses had been decapitated and dismembered, while there was also evidence of burning body parts and deliberate breaking of bones after death.

The team, who published their findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports, believe action to stop the dead rising is the explanation that best fits the evidence.

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.”