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Zombies in Yorkshire

Wharram Percy. Is that an old film-star, a variety of apple or a folk-remedy for colds? In fact, it’s none of the above – it’s a once-flourishing village in northern Yorkshire that was deserted at the end of the Middle Ages. Thousands of people lived and died there down the centuries, but today all that’s left is a ruined church, a few crumbling houses and some big bumps in the soil.

At least, that’s all that archaeologists and historians could see above ground. By digging, they’ve discovered a lot more and Wharram Percy has become one of the most closely studied of Britain’s many deserted settlements. Back in the 1960s, archaeologists dug up some burnt and mutilated skeletons in three pits amid some of the abandoned houses. Why were the skeletons not in the village graveyard near the church? The archaeologists decided that they dated from Roman times, long before the Middle Ages, and had been accidentally disturbed and broken when the villagers were building new houses, then burned and re-buried to guard against disease.

In the 1960s, that kind of guesswork was common in archaeology, because scientific techniques weren’t very advanced and it was hard to get much information out of a bone beyond than its shape, size and colour. The bones from Wharram Percy were put into storage and largely forgotten. But now, fifty years later, archaeologists have looked at them again – and discovered something much darker and more disturbing.

The bones hadn’t been broken accidentally, but deliberately, and they didn’t date from Roman times, but from the time of the village itself. What had happened? Was it cannibalism, an attempt to get at nutritious marrow in a time of famine? No, the cuts weren’t in the right places for that. Was it revenge on enemies from outside, then? Maybe a band of outlaws had attacked the village, been killed by the villagers, then chopped up, burned and thrown into the pits without proper burial.

But no, that wasn’t the answer either. Today scientists can test chemicals in the teeth to determine where someone grew up, because water and food in different places have different chemical profiles. These chemicals get into growing teeth and bones during childhood, meaning that it’s possible to pinpoint where someone lived as a child. When the teeth in the Wharram Percy skeletons were tested, the chemical profile was local – the dead people had grown up in the area and were mostly likely from the village itself. They weren’t outsiders or invaders at all.

And anyway, two of the skeletons were those of women and three were those of very young children. What on earth had happened all those centuries ago? Guesswork is still needed, but the archaeologists think that the villagers of Wharram Percy were scared of zombies. That is, they thought that the dead could rise from the grave and wander the earth, attacking living people or infecting them with disease. To prevent this happening, people in past centuries sometimes chopped up a corpse and burnt the fragments. That way, the dead would stay dead and the living could rest easy in their beds.

That kind of belief was once very widespread: the dead could be dangerous and the living had to guard themselves against attack. In central Europe, people believed in vampires; in Africa and the Caribbean, people believed in zombies. People believed something similar in Britain at one time too and the bones from Wharram Percy seem to be examples of what the living sometimes did to the dead.

But big questions still remain. Wharram Percy had a graveyard and the skeletons there are intact and unmutilated. What made the pit skeletons different? Why did the villagers decide that a handful of their fellow villagers didn’t deserve decent Christian burial, but had to be chopped up and burnt after death, then dumped into pits? Did the mutilated skeletons belong to people suspected of serious crimes or witchcraft? But there were children’s skeletons in the pits too.

Maybe the mutilated people had died of a disease thought to be a punishment from God. Or maybe everyone had belonged to a single family and been killed by the rest of the village as a collective punishment for some crime or heresy committed by one or more of the adults. There are many possibilities and we may never know the full truth. But science is advancing all the time and the bones of Wharram Percy may reveal more of their secrets one day.