Nestled in the heart of the Yorkshire Wolds, the deserted village of Wharram Percy lies quiet and still. Abandoned for the past 500 years the remains still existent provide rich archaeological evidence of the site’s history, and spill the site’s secrets even in the modern day.
Of the three thousand deserted villages which exist in England, Wharram Percy is the most widely studied. Possibly established in the Neolithic period and certainly by the Bronze Age, the site’s legacy can be seen through its diverse archaeology. During the Roman Period five farms were set up at the site, with evidence of mosaic work discovered suggestive of a Roman villa. Saxons later settled at the site, creating a corn mill which was existent during the Ninth Century. The church which still stands today also had its beginnings during this period, with a small chapel built on the grounds by the tenth century. The Twelfth Century saw two manors built at Wharram Percy, one of which was owned by the wealthy and politically powerful Percy family.
However, the village was soon hit by tragedy. The Black Plague which tormented England from 1348 to 1350 wiped out many of the inhabitants, and its legacy caused a severe decline with fewer than thirty cottages remaining. The weakened village was soon bought up to be converted into pasture, a popular process which increased in popularity over the following century and which culminated in the eviction of the last remaining families at the end. The village was gone, the cottages destroyed to further make way for grazing sheep. For a while it lay abandoned. Yet this was not the end of Wharram Percy’s history. In the Eighteenth Century, it had a second chance, which came in the form of Sir Charles Buck who built a new farmhouse and farm buildings. These are the only buildings which remain today, along with the ruined church.
Now the village lays quiet, with just the shadowy outlines of about thirty simple houses’ foundations visible. The roofless church, crumbling yet still standing tall, remains as a well-studied example of just how prosperous the village was during the Middle Ages. Since 1948 the site has undergone intensive research. Due to modern day ploughing, most Middle Saxon settlements have been irreparably damaged. But the unusual and fortunate preservation of Wharram Percy has led to some fascinating discoveries.
One of the most interesting excavations is that of a peasant man, aged around forty who had survived trepanning: a medieval form of cranial surgery. The man had lived between the years 960 and 1100 AD and appeared to have suffered an almost fatal blow to the head with a blunt weapon. As part of the procedure to heal him, a 9cm by 10cm section of his scalp was lifted in order to remove the shattered bone segments which would have been pushing down onto his brain. The archaeological evidence shows that his wound healed well, and would most likely have grown back with tough scar tissue. However, it seems highly unusual for a peasant to have undergone such a highly skilled medical procedure, suggesting that the knowledge was passed down surprisingly successfully through oral tradition.. This finding provides the clearest evidence to date that trepanning was performed in England during this period.
Further excavations have proved similarly informative. Recent studies at Wharram Percy looked at the evidence found within the skeletons. The bones demonstrate that bodies were burned, cut up and decapitated. Originally it was theorised that this was due to cannibalisation: a last resort of starving villagers. However, the evidence does not support this. The cuts made do not match those made by cannibals, which tend to focus on major joints and muscle groups. Instead, the marks on these excavated skeletons were made around the head and neck, and fit patterns of post-mortem mutilation. Historians studying the bones believe the most likely cause was a fear of corpses. Medieval folklore told tales of revenants who were thought to have the ability to rise up, roam the earth, spread disease and attack the living. These malevolent corpses were considered to be the result of evil spirits lingering on in those who had lived a sinful or violent life. To combat this the bodies were dug up, mutilated and then burned to stop them from rising again, which can be seen in the tangible evidence of Wharram Percy’s bones. This again makes Wharram Percy a truly significant site.