Zombies are huge in today’s popular culture. From popular shows like The Walking Dead, to shops that sell real equipment to survive a zombie apocalypse, our infatuation with the undead is evident. Recent archaeological evidence from a medieval village in England may now show that humanity’s interest in zombies is not a new fad. If the archaeologists’ beliefs are correct, these villagers believed zombie-like creatures existed, and they employed gruesome measures to prevent them.
Archaeologists first began excavating the village of Wharram Percy in the 1950s. The village had been abandoned in the 15th century, and it was allowed to waste away, undisturbed for centuries. This neglect made it an excellent source for the study of medieval life, as it was not dismantled and built over as many other sites have been. Research at the site has been ongoing for over 60 years.
Recently, researchers from the University of Southampton discovered a burial pit that was located in the domestic area of the village, away from the churchyard where most burials took place. In this pit, they found the remains of at least 10 individuals, ranging in age from 2 to over 70 years old. Sometime after dying, each one of these bodies had been decapitated and burned. The legs of several of the individuals had also been broken after death. They all showed signs of multiple knife marks in the region of the head and neck. Tests on their teeth showed that these had spent their lives in the area, so they weren’t outsiders who had been murdered and thrown in un-consecrated ground. So, why were the bodies treated this way?
One of the first theories to emerge was that these people had been the victims of cannibalism. The practice, though rare, did occur occasionally in medieval times during periods of extreme famine. The fact that the some of the legs had been broken, perhaps to remove marrow for consumption, led some to believe this was the case. The evidence of burning also pointed in this direction.
There were several problems with this theory, however. The only knife marks were in the head and neck area, instead of around major joints, as one would see with butchering. Animal remains found at the site show how the villagers butchered meat, and these remains had no signs of being cut in that way. The burn marks were also not totally consistent with known evidence of cannibalism from other sites.
Given the evidence, the theory that makes the most sense is that the villagers were engaging in an attempt to “lay a revenant.” A revenant is similar to what we call a zombie. It is a corpse that has risen from the grave, that can attack people and spread disease. In the Middle Ages, many people in northern and western Europe believed in these beings. It was thought that evil people and those who had died suddenly and unexpectedly were at risk of becoming an undead menace. To stop someone from becoming a revenant, or to put an existing one down, the body of the zombie had to be decapitated and burned. The legs would usually be broken to prevent it from walking.
This conclusion does have a few possible problems. Firstly, most sources describe revenants as grown men, but children and women were among the dismembered remains at Wharram Percy. It is possible, though, that the surviving sources do not fully describe all folk beliefs about the undead. The sources we have were written by religious writers who wanted to show what they believed were important examples of the phenomenon. They might have simply not included tales of female or child revenants in their writings. In addition, the remains were found in the domestic part of the village, where homes were located. This suggest that villagers were not afraid of the bodies, though that might have been because they had already prevented their reanimation before they were deposited, thereby removing any reason to be fearful.
If these remains were truly destroyed to prevent a zombie-like attack, then this would be the first solid physical evidence of the practice of dealing with a revenant. It would also show that the ingredients for our horror movies and nightmares have a very long history.