Dating from the 11th to 14th centuries, the skeletal remains were reduced to chopped, smashed, and burnt fragments in an apparent attempt to forestall revenants rising from the grave.
The bones were recovered in the 1960s from a pit at the site of Wharram Percy, a long-abandoned village in rural Yorkshire, but were never examined closely until now.
Gruesome evidence of extensive human activity was immediately clear.
“Some of the bones showed sharp force marks, signs of burning and perimortem breakage,” Simon Mays, human skeletal biologist at Historic England, Alistair Pike, professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton, and their colleagues wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
While they considered starvation cannibalism as a possible cause, the researchers said they had ruled out a scenario in which the remains were cannibalized by villagers who were enduring one of the 12 known famines that occurred in England between 1066 and 1300.
“The patterns of breakage and cut marks on the bones are not consistent with the removal of flesh for eating,” Pike told Seeker.
Rather than indicate starvation cannibalism, the breakage, burning, and knife and chop marks on the skeletal remains appear to be consistent with dismemberment and decapitation, which would reflect the dark side of medieval beliefs.
The most likely explanation, according to Mays, is that the bones are “the remains of corpses burnt and dismembered to stop them walking from their graves.”
“Belief in revenants was widespread in Medieval northern and western Europe. Revenants were usually malevolent, spreading disease and physically assaulting the living,” the researchers wrote. “Methods of dealing with the undead involved physical and/or spiritual means, with an emphasis on the former. The most usual way was to dig up the body and subject it to mutilation (particularly decapitation) and burning.”
Osteological examination of the 137 bones revealed that they belonged to at least 10 individuals, ranging in age from two to 50 years old.
Monastic documents describe the behavior of the restless undead and detail how to treat a body to prevent it from rising again.
The most common way was to dig up the corpse, which was mutilated and decapitated to destroy its integrity and burned, rendering it unrecognizable.
“Our research is the first archaeological evidence for such treatment in the UK,” Pike said. “It tells us that the fear of revenant corpses was real. People really did believe that corpses can rise from the dead.”
“The knife marks can be interpreted in terms of dismemberment or other mutilation of the body, and those in the head and neck area may be associated with decapitation,” they wrote.
They added that at least 17 bones show evidence for low-temperature burning, while six long bones feature breakage that occurred at or sometime after death.
Why these 10 individuals would have been treated by the villagers in this way, or elicited such fear, remains a mystery.
“We don't know,” Pike said. “We have historical accounts of how the dead who may have been killed suddenly, or wronged in some way, come back to life and cause trouble.”
He added that no frightening diseases were detected from the bones.
“We found just a few cases of joint disease, but with a similar frequency to the individuals buried in the nearby graveyard, so there is no reason to believe these individuals were unusual,” he remarked.
Strontium isotopic analyses in the teeth suggest that the people whose corpses were mutilated likely grew up in an area close to where they were buried, possibly in the village.
“This was surprising to us, as we first wondered if the unusual treatment of the bodies might relate to their being from further afield,” Pike said.
Read more at Discovery News