Archaeologists uncover mass grave in lost medieval village
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The UK was once a hub of medieval towns and villages, many settlements scattered across the country either where large towns and cities stand today, or at least near to where their predecessors once were. Towns like Warwick — one of England’s oldest settlements — Oxford, Chester, York and Ludlow, as well as Durham, were all once-bustling medieval townships and continue to thrive to this day. But there are others that did not survive and now stand empty and desolate, like Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire.
The deserted medieval village and former parish is near the market town of Malton, just on the western edge of the chalk Wolds, and is one of Britain’s best-reserved 3,000 or so deserted medieval villages.
According to English Heritage, it is also “undoubtedly the most famous” as for over 60 years, archaeologists have pioneered new techniques at the site to understand what life was like there hundreds of years ago and why it was eventually abandoned.
The village was occupied for six centuries, from around the 9th or 10th century until the 16th, and today contains traces of many lost houses on a grassy plateau above the substantial remains of a medieval church and the millpond.
One aspect of the site that has stunned archaeologists was discovered in the Sixties when researchers unearthed a burial pit, as explored by the Smithsonian Channel in its documentary, ‘Mystic Britain’.
Travelling there, presenter Clive Anderson noted: “It [the village] holds a secret so grisly you’ll scarcely be able to believe it.”
Wharram Percy once consisted of around 40 houses, two mills, two manor houses, a village green, and the church that’s still more or less standing in its entirety minus a roof.
The presence of the church proves that it was a substantial village filled with “god-fearing” Christians who lived, worshipped and died at the site, many of whom were buried in its graveyard.
Dr Stuart Wrathmell, an archaeologist who specialises in medieval settlements, explained that people lived at the site until around the 1520s, and would have led a fair life in the idyllic environment.
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However, he conceded: “There are some rather darker finds.”
Across from the church, outside the boundaries of the graveyard, archaeologists previously made a “disturbing discovery”, as Mr Anderson described it.
Dr Wrathmell explained: “There is one find that we made which was a pit just here, which contained over 100 human bones.”
He said that at least ten people were buried in it, and continued: “It’s a bit strange because most people in the village, you would think, would be buried down in the churchyard.
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“It was thought at the time when this pit was found in 1963 that it must be before the medieval period because we knew Romans were living nearby, so it could be prehistoric or Roman bones.
“Some of them were radiocarbon dated and found to be medieval when everyone should have been buried in the churchyard, and not out here in the farmstead.”
As the two spoke, standing on the spot where the bodies were found, Mr Anderson noted an eerily thick mist rising: “It’s coming up just as you’re telling me this to make it feel rather creepy!”
The town was once inhabited by members of the noble Percy family, one of the most powerful noble families in Northern England for much of the Middle Ages, known for their long rivalry with another powerful northern family, the House of Neville.
The Percy’s descended from William de Percy, a Frenchman who travelled to England after William the Conqueror successfully captured the country.
While the Percy name died out twice in the male line, it was later re-adopted by the husband of a Percy heiress and by their descendants and so continued.
In the 12th century, the original Percy line was represented by Agnes de Percy, whose son, Joscelin of Louvain, adopted the surname Percy.
Since their time a number of archaeological surveys have been carried out in a bid to determine the physical and biological makeup of the people who once called Wharram Percy home.
Digging began in the Fifties, and in 2002, Historic England undertook an investigation and analytical field survey of the site, collecting skeletal remains excavated from the churchyard.
They published their results in 2004, revealing intimate details about disease, diet and death in the community.
The study used what was at that point the newest scientific technology available to determine things like childhood growth, the duration of breastfeeding, as well as the prevalence of osteoporosis and tuberculosis.
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