Archaeologists uncover mass grave in lost medieval village
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Up and down Britain are the remains of medieval splendours, from Warwick, one of England’s oldest such settlements, to Oxford, Chester to York, and Ludlow to Durham. Each locality holds snippets of the past which attract millions of visitors from around the world each year. While these towns and cities maintain at least some parts of their medieval histories, many of their buildings, walls, monuments and taverns have either been upgraded or eclipsed by new developments.
There is one settlement, however, that remains almost untouched, although is difficult to spot from ground level.
Wharram Percy was abandoned in the 16th century for reasons that still elude archaeologists to this day.
The village was occupied for six centuries spanning from the 800 or 900s right through until the early 1500s, and according to English Heritage, it is “undoubtedly the most famous” medieval village in the UK.
Located near the market town of Malton, Wharram Percy was once the locality’s parish.
Traces of a number of lost houses remain, their shadowy silhouettes scattered across a grassy plateau that overlooks a medieval church.
For over 60 years archaeologists have pioneered their discipline at the site, using new techniques to uncover how the medieval Britons once lived.
While many relics and clues about the historic way of life have been found scattered across Wharram Percy, one discovery made back in the Sixties shocked researchers, and was explored by the Smithsonian Channel in its documentary, ‘Mystic Britain’.
Digging the site, fieldworkers came across an intriguing burial pit; intriguing because it was a fair distance away from the local church and graveyard, where the village’s inhabitants would, and should, have been buried.
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Travelling there, presenter Clive Anderson noted: “It [the village] holds a secret so grisly you’ll scarcely be able to believe it.”
The village once contained around 40 houses, two mills, a village green, two manor houses — hinting at the powerful families that lived there — and a church that no longer has its roof.
Having a church there proves Wharram Percy’s worth and how it was a hub of social activity and religious worship.
Dr Stuart Wrathmell, an archaeologist who specialises in medieval settlements, explained that people lived at the site up until around 20 years into the 16th century.
He said they would have lived a fairly quiet and slow life, but added that the burial site hinted at a “darker” side of life.
Describing it as a “disturbing discovery”, Dr Wrathmell took Mr Anderson over to the pit, located just outside the boundaries of the graveyard, and explained: “There is one find that we made which was a pit just here, which contained over 100 human bones.”
Noting that at least ten people had been buried inside, he continued: “It’s a bit strange because most people in the village, you would think, would be buried down in the churchyard.
“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.
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“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.”
Wharram Percy derives its name from the noble Percy family who once oversaw it.
They were one of the most powerful noble families in Northern England for much of the medieval period, and would have competed with other noble families, like the House of Neville, for prestige.
But, much like modern-day Britons, the Percy’s were not entirely natives of the land, having descended from a Frenchman who made the journey to England following William the Conqueror’s decisive victory over Harold II in 1066.
The Percy name actually died out twice in the male line but was later readopted by the husband of a Percy heiress and her subsequent descendants.
Earlier, in the 12th century, the original Percy line was represented by Agnes de Percy, whose son, Joscelin of Louvain, adopted the surname Percy.
As previously mentioned, Wharram Percy has been something of an archaeological playground for researchers wanting to test the new tricks of the trade.
Because of its well-kept nature, archaeologists have been able to take a number of samples from the soil and human remains in order to determine the physical and biological makeup of the former residents.
While digging started in the Fifties, in 2002, Historic England opened an investigation and analytical surgery of the site by collecting skeletons excavated from the churchyard.
In 2004, they published their results to much acclaim, laying bare everything from the diets of the medieval people to how they died.
Back then, the result stirred excitement because they were at the cutting-edge of science, technologies which have since gone on to help at archaeological sites around the world.
At Wharram Percy, the researchers revealed information about childhood growth, the duration women breastfed their children, and how prevalent in the community things like osteoporosis and tuberculosis were.
Today, you can visit Wharram Percy and see for yourself the medieval splendours of northern England.
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