Bones excavated from the long-deserted village of Wharram Percy, near Malton in North Yorkshire, appear to be from corpses that had been burnt or mutilated.
The discovery has been hailed as potentially the first significant archaeological evidence of practices carried out with the intention of preventing the dead rising from their graves and menacing the living.
Simon Mays, human skeletal biologist at heritage agency 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.”
Experts from Historic England and the University of Southampton studied 137 bones found in the village, representing the mixed remains of at least 10 people and dating from the 11th to 14th centuries. One theory considered but later discounted was that the savage treatment of the bodies was down to the dead people being seen as ‘outsiders’.
Analysis of teeth, which can point to the geology of the area where an individual spent their childhood, suggests the people had grown up near their burial location.
Alistair Pike, professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton, said: “This was surprising to us as we first wondered if the unusual treatment of the bodies might relate to their being from further afield rather than local.”
The researchers also ruled out a gruesome second theory – that the remains had been cannibalised by starving villagers suffering during the famines which occurred frequently in the medieval era. But in cannibalism, knife marks on bones tend to cluster around major muscle attachments or large joints. At Wharram Percy, however, the marks were mainly in the head and neck, suggesting at least some of the corpses had been decapitated. Folklore in the Middle Ages claimed 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.
The research team’s findings have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports. A previous study conducted at Wharram Percy found evidence that, unlike the female city dwellers of the medieval period, women who lived in the village joined their menfolk in back-breaking agricultural work.
Their skeletons, experts said in 2009, were bigger boned than those of women unearthed from a medieval burial site at Fishergate in the centre of York.