MEDIEVAL villagers in Ryedale mutilated and burnt bodies to stop them rising from the dead, according to new research.

The study, conducted by Historic England and Southampton University and published today in the Journal of Archaeological Science, involved examining bodies excavated at the abandoned Wharram Percy village south of Malton.

Researchers studied the remains of about 10 people and discovered the bodies had been decapitated and dismembered.

Knife marks were found on 137 bones dating between the 11th and 14th centuries.

The knife marks were mostly made to the head and neck, but there was also evidence for the burning of body parts and deliberate breaking of some bones after death, the team said.

Dark side of medieval beliefs

The researchers think these mutilations were carried out by villagers who believed that it would stop the corpses arising from their graves and "menacing the living".

In medieval times, there was a folk-belief that sometimes corpses could arise 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.

The belief that people would rise from the grave and come after the living was based on eastern European vampire myths, according to the researchers - as opposed to zombie myths which have their roots more in African and Caribbean communities.

Simon Mays, human skeletal biologist at 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."

The team ruled out a theory the remains were cannibalised by starving villagers because there was no evidence of cutting to major muscle attachments or large joints.