An impression of the village of Wharram Percy in its medieval heyday, by Stephen Conlin. Courtesy English Heritage.
A perplexing mother and baby grave at England’s best preserved medieval village is shedding new light on attitudes to life in the Middle Ages.
The village of Wharram Percy, near Malton, North Yorkshire, has been the site of the longest running excavation in British archaeological history. Between 1950 and 1990, 687 skeletons were recovered, dating back to around the 12th century.
English Heritage is now analysing 900-year-old remains of a young woman who was buried with her tiny child placed between her thighs. The baby, it seems, was her unborn child – she died 10 weeks short of childbirth.
Woman and foetus discovered during excavations at Wharram. Some bones had been removed by archaeologists when this photo was taken, but the foetus is still there, visible as a cluster of bones below the woman's pelvis. Courtesy English Heritage.
“The most likely explanation for this double burial,” said Simon Mays, Skeletal Biologist at the English Heritage Centre for Archaeology, “is that the pregnant woman died of TB and the foetus was cut free from the womb in the hope it might survive.”
Indeed, DNA analysis confirmed that the woman died of tuberculosis, between the ages of 25 and 35. The baby was placed carefully with her, head facing west in the Christian tradition.
“Caesareans don’t seem to have been carried out on living women at this time, probably because it was far too dangerous,” continued Simon. “However, physicians and priests did recommend that midwives should try and extract the baby from the womb if the mother died. It’s probable the foetus was found to be dead, or died soon afterwards, and so was buried with its mother. Few burials in the UK have been found offering evidence of such a scenario.”
Six of the woman's vertabrae show signs of tuberculosis. Courtesy English Heritage.
Children under one year old account for about 15 per cent of the burials at Wharram Percy, but this was the only burial of its kind discovered.
“We tend to think medieval people somehow got used to death because life could be so nasty, brutish and short,” said Simon. “But this burial tends to rebut this and suggests life was every bit as precious, leading to drastic acts to preserve it.”
A new exhibition at nearby Malton Museum – backed by £50,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund – explores the evidence of medieval ways of life found at Wharram, and tells the story of this intriguing burial. Entitled Wharram Percy – Life in a Medieval Village, it features previously unseen relics such as the country’s only surviving medieval bake-stone. The stone proves that villagers were eating oatcakes and flat breads, while 3D laser scans of skulls has enabled recreations of their faces.
Wharram Percy today. © Tony Bartholomew.
In addition, the flood of new findings at Wharram has driven a revamp of the site’s interpretation, with new storyboards based on English Heritage fieldwork going up. The latest research suggests that the village was intensively settled, rather than being a sleepy backwater – houses jostled for space instead of being spread out.