An excavation of the abandoned village of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire found that a number of the bodies buried there had been dismembered and burned after death, and archaeologists believe that this was done because the peasantry were worried about the dead rising from their graves as zombies.
Researchers from Historic England and Southampton University studied sets of bones from 10 people of variable ages who died between the 11th and 14th centuries in Wharram Percy. Each body had been chopped to pieces and burned before burial.
Some researchers speculated that the bodies were dismembered to be used as food during times of famine, but that conclusion was found not to hold water. The bodies were not cut as though they had been butchered (i.e., the dismemberment didn't center around large joints) and did not match skeletons of butchered animals found in that area.
They also weren't foreigners or enemies of the village, as isotopic analysis of their teeth found that the dead bodies belonged to locals. "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," Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist with Historic England, told the BBC.
"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."
The village of Wharram Percy was abandoned in the 16th century as the villagers' land was bought from them to make room for a sheep pasture. The site became one of interest for 20th-century archaeologists hoping to learn more about life in a medieval village.
The dead returning to life was a common feature of medieval European folklore. "In medieval times, there was a folk-belief that corpses could rise from their graves and roam the local area, spreading disease and violently assaulting those unlucky enough to encounter them," said Southampton University in a statement.
"Restless corpses were usually thought to be caused by a lingering malevolent life-force in individuals who had committed evil deeds or created animosity when living. Medieval writers describe a number of ways of dealing with revenants, one of which was to dig up the offending corpse, decapitate and dismember it, and burn the pieces in a fire."