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Gernot Keller via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Did Medieval Brits Worry About a Zombie Uprising?

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Gernot Keller via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

From Babylon and China to the Czech Republic and Haiti, cultures around the world and throughout human history have whispered stories about the rise of the walking dead. Now researchers in the UK say they may have found evidence of one village’s attempts to keep that from happening. They published their report in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

JThomas via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

The site of the former Wharram Percy village is peaceful today, with grassy meadows and the picturesque ruins of St. Martin’s church. Nearly a thousand years ago, the scene was very different, as the remains of 10 people—including children—were burned, hacked with knives, and left in a pit outside the church cemetery.

This was not standard procedure. Historical records indicate that the people of Wharram Percy were peasant farmers and landowners, accustomed to laying their dead to rest with dignity.

So when archaeologists took a close look at the mutilated remains in the pit, they were mystified. What would inspire ordinary people to commit such violence against the dead? And who were the deceased, to inspire such gruesome acts?

To find out, they reviewed each cut and char mark on every single one of the 137 bones recovered from the site. They used radiocarbon dating to estimate the bones’ age, analyzed the chemical makeup of tooth enamel, and reviewed other archeological records, looking for other examples of this kind of attack on the dead.


Cuts and breaks in the Wharram Percy bones. Image Credit: Mays et al. 2017 in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports

The team determined that the bones had been laid to rest between the 11th and 13th centuries, and strontium isotope analysis of tooth enamel showed they’d belonged to locals. This latter fact immediately eliminated the most common explanation: that the deceased had been criminals, drifters, or other unwelcome visitors.

The angle, depth, and placement of the cuts in the bone, combined with the way they were broken and burned, eventually led the researchers to settle on two theories. Either these people were eaten by the villagers, or their mutilation was part of “an attempt to lay the revenant dead.”

Both options sound fairly extreme, and they are. But these were hard, lean times in Wharram Percy, and famine can drive people to do terrible things.

Still, close analysis of the bone damage made cannibalism seem unlikely. The cuts were made into the middle of bones, not butcher-style, at the joints.

Zombies, though?

“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,” co-author Simon Mays of Historic England told The Guardian.

Yet in their paper, Mays and his colleagues were less certain. “The evidence does not permit arguments to be advanced decisively in favor of either scenario, but it may be more consistent with attempts to lay revenant corpses than with starvation cannibalism,” they wrote.

The truth about Wharram Percy’s desecrated dead eludes us still. But TV producers, if you’re reading this: medieval zombies? Think about it.

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Antarctic Heritage Trust
Researchers Find 100-Year-Old Antarctic Fruitcake in 'Excellent Condition'
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Antarctic Heritage Trust

If you want a snack that really won’t go bad, consider the fruitcake. Conservationists working with artifacts from Cape Adare, Antarctica, just discovered a remarkably well-preserved fruitcake dating back a full century, according to Gizmodo.

The fruitcake dates back to Robert Falcon Scott’s disaster-plagued Terra Nova expedition, which began in 1910. Documentation proves that Scott brought tins of the same Huntley & Palmers fruitcake with him to Cape Adare, about 1700 miles south of New Zealand.

The 106-year-old fruitcake tin is rusted and its paper wrapper damaged—though still largely intact—but the cake itself “was in excellent condition,” as a press release from the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust, whose researchers discovered the tin, describes. The release says it “looked and smelt (almost) edible,” which is a glowing review for a food that dates back to William Taft’s presidency.

A rusted rectangular tin holds a century-old fruitcake.
Antarctic Heritage Trust

Why fruitcake? “It’s an ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favorite item on modern trips to the Ice,” according to the AHT’s project manager for artifacts, Lizzie Meek. Four AHT conservators have been working to preserve almost 1500 artifacts from Cape Adare, where Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink erected the first buildings in Antarctica. (Scott’s expedition later used the same huts.) They're still standing, and the AHT’s next project will be preserving the structures.

The Cape Adare site is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area, and the trust is working under a permit that requires its conservators to return any artifacts to the huts after they’ve been restored, meaning Scott’s fruitcake will eventually go back to where it was found.

Surprisingly, this is not the first fruitcake that has stayed edible for more than a century. Fidelia Ford made a holiday fruitcake in 1878, and it’s still in the family. It’s not quite fresh, though. One of Ford’s descendants reviewed it thusly: “Not much of a taste, no, and not good.” Given that Scott’s fruitcake is set to return to Cape Adare eventually, it’s doubtful that anyone will get a taste. We’ll just have to use our imaginations.

[h/t Gizmodo]

All images courtesy Antarctic Heritage Trust

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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scientists Devise Clever Way to Test Old Manuscripts’ DNA
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Jim Forest, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When encountering an obstacle, some people stop and give up, some force their way through, and others find another way around. That's what scientists in the United Kingdom have done with a delicate manuscript from the Dark Ages. Barred from taking parchment samples, the resourceful researchers instead analyzed the eraser crumbs left behind after archivists cleaned the paper. They describe their findings in an article on the prepress server bioRxiv.

Co-author and archaeologist Matthew Collins of the University of York did not start out a manuscript man. Collins had been trying to extract DNA from animal bones unearthed at a Viking settlement to learn more about the culture's use of livestock. But the bones had decayed too far to offer much in the way of genetic material. "You can imagine the frustration," Collins said in an interview with The Atlantic.

Then he realized that animal remains can be more than just bones. There are skins, too—and those, at least, we've taken some pains to preserve. At least the ones we've written on.

"You look at [archive] shelves," Collins said, "and every one of them has a skin of an animal with a date written on it."

Collins's excitement at discovering this untapped bounty of data was soon tempered when he and his collaborator, biochemist Sarah Fiddyment, learned that sampling the manuscripts was completely off-limits.

But they weren't about to give up that easily. Fiddyment spent weeks following the conservators as they worked with the fragile animal-skin paper, learning their process and watching for possible openings. Finally, she saw it: eraser crumbs.

Conservators routinely use PVC erasers to lift stains, grime, and damage from historic documents. The friction created by gently rubbing the eraser against the paper creates an electric charge that pulls in molecules of dirt and oil. And probably other things, too, Fiddyment thought.

Fiddyment, Collins, and their colleagues began collecting eraser crumbs from manuscript conservators around the world. They analyzed each document's chemical makeup and were even able to compare proteins to identify the livestock species responsible for the skin.

The next step was to look at the DNA itself. The researchers turned to the York Gospels, a leatherbound Bible with pages dating back to the year 990. By collecting another tiny pile of eraser crumbs from cleanup of eight pages, they were able to collect enough of a sample to run thorough DNA tests.

Those pages had quite a lot to say about their creation and history. The tests revealed 1000-year-old genetic material from the cows and sheep that gave the book its parchment pages. Remarkably, the DNA was so intact that the scientists could identify the cows' ancestry (something close to our modern-day Norwegian reds and Holsteins) and sex (mostly female).

The pages also contained human DNA and even bacteria, most likely from the hands and saliva of the people who made, wrote, and used the book.

Speaking to The Atlantic, parchment expert Bruce Holsinger of the University of Virginia called the findings "an exciting breakthrough."

[h/t The Atlantic]


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