First good archaeological evidence of preventing zombies from returning
April 3, 2017 9:05 PM   Subscribe

The Guardian reports that "A study by archaeologists has revealed certain people in medieval Yorkshire were so afraid of the dead they chopped, smashed and burned their skeletons (abstract, link to full paper) to make sure they stayed in their graves." The remains were found in Wharram Percy, one of the largest and best preserved of Britain's 3,000 or so known deserted medieval villages. posted by filthy light thief (18 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The title is a kludge of a quote, in longer form here:
Simon Mays concludes: “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.”
posted by filthy light thief at 9:50 PM on April 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

If only the Nords of Skyrim had learned the same lesson.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:13 PM on April 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

When there's no more room in hell, the dead will limp the Earth.
posted by Naberius at 10:25 PM on April 3, 2017

That's just prudent.
posted by chrchr at 11:02 PM on April 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am not seeing any good explanation* why we should assume this was anti-revenant activity rather than ritual humiliation/punishment enacted at death. I mean, the blurb itself says this mutiliation/burning happened soon after death, which sounds more like ritual desecration, vs. people actually being buried, weird shit happening, them being dug up and sorted out.

* other than, you know, clicks.
posted by AFII at 2:39 AM on April 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Those were writers for "The Walking Dead"
posted by thelonius at 3:53 AM on April 4, 2017

Well, just like anything else archaeological, it's all supposition. Nobody wrote anything down about these practices at the time (that we know of yet), so it's all hypotheticals and guesswork. But as the guy said, this is an explanation (probably one of many) that fits the evidence.

Like, put two archaeologists in a room discussing the same set of facts about any given site and you'll get three Interpretations of the same data set, all of them usually wrong.
posted by disclaimer at 4:14 AM on April 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Were they zombie hobbits by any chance?

"In a hole in the ground there was a hobbit. A nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell: it was a zombie-hobbit hole, and that means brains."
posted by pracowity at 4:35 AM on April 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's as I always say, all really intelligent people should be cremated for reasons of public safety. --- The Amazing Screw-On Head.
posted by SPrintF at 6:15 AM on April 4, 2017

I'm going kill you. And bury you. And then dig you up again and burn you. And then kill you again and bury you. And then dig you up again and chop up what's left of you. And kill you again. And then bury you.
posted by Segundus at 6:25 AM on April 4, 2017

AFII: I am not seeing any good explanation* why we should assume this was anti-revenant activity rather than ritual humiliation/punishment enacted at death

From the Southampton article (second link in the OP):
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. 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. Perhaps the bones from Wharram Percy were parts of bodies that were mutilated and burnt because of medieval fears of corpses rising from their graves. The researchers considered other theories, but this explanation appears to be the most consistent with the alterations observed on the bones.
That article also notes that the hack marks are not at joints, which is where one would expect remains to be cut if this were cannibalism in times of famine.

Still, lots of theory, and hard to pin it to one motive, as disclaimer noted above.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:09 AM on April 4, 2017

thanks, but I read that link - & still didn't really get an answer to the question of why assume revenants and not at-the-point-of-death punishment? Especially given the 'just after death' vs. 'dug up and done to' aspect.
posted by AFII at 7:31 AM on April 4, 2017

Second thoughts? Better safe than sorry?
posted by Mister Bijou at 7:48 AM on April 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Perhaps there was one example of something weird happening with a presumably dead person, or perhaps they heard stories from other villages and implemented it on a 'just in case' basis?.

Given how prone modern humans are to moral panics and mass hysteria still, I don't find it hard at all to believe that medieval people in a village or small region could get it into their heads that they have to smash up the dead bodies lest they return from the grave, just because of a story from a passing trader or whatever.

Not that there's any evidence one way or the other, but it makes most sense to me, given what I know.
posted by neonrev at 8:05 AM on April 4, 2017

I think it's probably unlikely children were further punished with humiliation after death by body mutilation (for what offense, I would wonder?) That would be the biggest sign pointing away from that, for me.
posted by agregoli at 8:29 AM on April 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Reddit thread has some interesting cases for why people might have thought the dead would come back, from premature burials due to thinking someone in a coma or with lead poisoning was dead-dead, to finding recently deceased bodies with rosy cheeks or hair and nails still growing. It's all speculation, but when paired with the variety of local people (at least 10 individuals aged between two and 50, including seven adults, two of them women, and three very young children), punishing the dead seems odd. As agregoli noted, it seems that unless punishing (the corpses of) young children was common at that time, preventing the return of the dead to spread disease seems a bit more likely, from my modern, generally uninformed-on-historic-norms view.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:30 AM on April 4, 2017

Did the article say anything about how the corpses seemed to have originally been dug out from inside the graves? Cause it really should.
posted by happyroach at 9:57 AM on April 4, 2017

This seems like the unintended effect of a really good practical joke.
posted by fshgrl at 12:11 AM on April 5, 2017

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