Spel Banum – The Story of Bones

I had a different blog topic planned for today, but a friend sent me a very interesting article instead.

(Also please forgive the bastardised Old English in the title. I couldn’t resist giving it a go.)

So today we are looking at the collection of mutilated bones found in the medieval settlement of Wharram Percy. This archaeological study has just been released, and I am delighted to say that it’s Open Access, which means FREEEEEEE, and you can read it here if you want to. I’d recommend it. That was the one thing that my Masters really drilled into my head: always go to the original source where possible.

Let’s just indulge my main interest for five seconds:

Wharram: Old English hwer “kettle/cauldron” but in the plural dative (-um), so it’s more like “(missing word) at the cauldrons”. First attested in the Domesday book as Warran.

Percy: de Percy, from the Percy family.

(All information from A Dictionary of British Place-Names by A. D. Mills (revised first edition, 2011).

Ok, good, that was cool, let’s go!


A collection of bones was found during an excavation for something else entirely in 1964. They were originally shrugged off as Roman remains, but some of them were carbon-dated somewhere between 182-86 and revealed to be from much later. Ten more samples were sent to be dated in 2014.

(Update for those unaware, the Romans were in Britain from AD43 to about AD410.)

Some of these bones were marked in ways that suggested they had been burnt, hit hard with something sharp, and broken soon after death. Some of the sharp implements used were knives, and others were “a sword or other sharp bladed implement”. (I wonder how many farming tools come under that heading …) The age range of the bones went all the way from 3 years old to over 50.

In sum, the whole collection consists of 137 bones representing a minimum of 10 individuals: six full adults (two females, two probable males, two unsexed), one possible female who died in her late teens/early 20s (above enumerated with the adults), one subadult in their mid teens, one child aged about 2–4 and one aged about 3–4 years.

We’re not talking full skeletons here, or anything close, as you can probably tell by those numbers. One complete human skeleton has over 200 bones. So. Bits and pieces.

Because I’m a medical nut too, I liked finding out that there was evidence of these diseases in the bones found: degenerative joint conditions, porotic hyperostosis and a case of Paget’s disease of bone.

The radiocarbon dating showed that most of the people probably died between 1000-1250.

So what happened to them?

Well, the investigation suggests that the heads were severed from the bodies before being burnt, and that the limbs were probably lying on the ground rather than stacked up in a fire since only one side of them is burnt. All the sharp implement marks were found on bones from the upper body, and all bar three of the marks are from extremely sharp un-serrated metal knives. They were probably buried elsewhere else before ending up in the pit where they were found. The scientists rule out several possibilities, like victims of battle (not enough sword marks) or a group of people excluded from church burials (suicides and unbaptised babies for example). They came up with two possibliltes: cannibalism through starvation, or:

“attempts to lay the revenant dead.”

Understandably the media has seized on “vampires” as their story, but I like the cannibalism theory, so let’s run through that briefly.

Potentially gruesome words ahead.

Medieval rural society was almost wholly harvest dependent – bad harvest meant a really, really bad food year. The study notes that between 1066 and 1300 twelve famines were recorded. And that was just the ones considered, and I quote, “worthy of note”. Wharram Percy’s soil wasn’t ideal quality for agriculture, and its upland northern location also made harvests less reliable than those lower down/more southern. (Despite what my mother thinks, those two things are not interchangeable). There isn’t much documentary evidence for medieval cannibalism, but the situation could have been severe enough, and other countries and places have shown that resorting to this does happen.

  • Some of the long bones were broken: this could have been to extract tasty fatty bone marrow. Yum.
  • They weren’t cooked in a pot, but could still have been roasted.
  • There are some knife marks on bones which could indicate filleting the meat, but on the other hand the knife marks concentration around the head and lack beneath the chest area doesn’t fit known cannibalism patterns.
  • The cut marks, burning and some breaking of these human bones are all different from those found on animal bones from Wharram Percy. This might indicate they weren’t being prepared for food, or simply, I think, that human remains in such desperate straits were treated differently.
  • My Personal Thought: one of the diseases found in the bones, portico hyperostosis, has been used to show lack of adaption to environment, low iron due to fighting disease, and vitamin deficiencies. Sounds like a malnourished population to me …

Ok, fine, to the vampires. Zombies. Whatever.

People used to believe that corpses could rise from the grave, after death but before the flesh decomposed fully. These reanimated corpses generally had bad and destructive intentions. Though the Church tried to claim this belief had Satan at its roots, it might be far older than Christianity in Britain and was generally believed to happen to dead people who a) had done bad, bad things in life and had some leftover evil to spare or b) people who died very suddenly and so still had some life energy left over. How to deal with these horrors? Well, dig them up, cut them up, and burn them!

The fire at Wharram Percy wasn’t very hot (about 400 degrees) but would have been hot enough to remove or distort the skin and flesh, thus getting rid of the danger.

What’s the point of breaking the corpse’s legs if its flesh is the problem? Well, who knows, but it’s been recognised as a way that these corpses were dealt in other occurrences of reanimation.

Recorded “zombies” were always adults, and almost always men. This would seem to cast doubt on this interpretation, since as stated above there was a real mix of genders and ages in the Wharram Percy bones. However, documentary evidence is not the be all and end all, especially in an era without widespread literacy, and when looking at something that the church considered a sticky subject.

The authors think that the evidence weighs in the direction of reanimated corpses. I’m intrigued by the idea that it might have been cannibalism. Neither of these explanations explain why the bones were found in a pit away from where they had been buried, separate from the rest of their skeletons. I love a mystery.

Let me know what you think, or indeed if you’ve managed to read this far at all!


Spel Banum – The Story of Bones

4 thoughts on “Spel Banum – The Story of Bones

  1. It was hard to keep reading, I’ll tell you that!
    I liked the cannibalism way better (especially as it reminds me of an episode of The X Files), but maybe you swayed me with your thorough debunking, we’ll never know. I do think the mixed nature of the bones is the biggest indicator here, pretty similar to what happened with the Donner Party in America when pioneers had to resort to cannibalism to survive when they got stuck up in the mountains (or the pass they needed to get through was snowed in? I’d have to read up on it again to check).


  2. I think the cannibalism theory has much more credability then they thought they were vampires. Still blows my mind but thats ’cause I am innocent thinking and the whole idea of it freaks me out a little. Very good post!


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