The village of Wharram Percy as it may have appeared in the Middle Ages. © English Heritage
Yorkshire men in early medieval times were not so much big heads – as round heads – according to new research carried out by English Heritage.
The examination of nearly 700 skeletons recovered from the deserted village of Wharram Percy, near Malton, North Yorkshire, shows that the skull shapes of men between the 11th and 13th centuries became noticeably rounder.
The move to rounder, rather than longer and narrower heads during this period, has been noted at several sites throughout Western Europe, and attempts to explain the phenomenon have linked the cranial change with an influx of immigrants, such as Norse or Norman, introducing different racial characteristics.
But Wharram was an isolated and dwindling population, crippled by both the plague and sheep blight, which combined to spell its doom. Not only did newcomers give it a wide berth, but female skulls do not show the same change.
The Wharram data is therefore unique in that it traces the change in a single, indigenous community, which has been accurately radio carbon dated. It may also point to new theories to explain the cranial blip.
“Our work has yielded few clues on why skulls changed, but we have cast serious doubt on some of the current theories,” said Simon Mays, English Heritage Human Skeletal Biologist. “Despite the best efforts of science, we’re still in the dark to explain why it happened.”
“If immigration was responsible, we would expect both sexes to be affected. We do know that male skulls shapes eventually reverted back, becoming similar to those we have today.”
Remains of the church at Wharram Percy today. © English Heritage
The new study focuses on the 14th century ruined church of St Martin’s and its graveyard, where the skeletons were found.
Because the mysterious phenomenon is not restricted to Wharram, climate has been cited as a possible cause. People in colder parts of the world generally have rounder skulls, which have a lower overall surface area and retain heat better than some other skull types. However, the climate at Wharram during the critical period rose by 0.5 celsius and was actually warmer than it is today.
“What we do know is that male bones more readily display the effects of environmental changes in their early development than those of women,” added Simon Mayes. “But to confuse matters further, as the weather got much colder in the later medieval period, skulls started to become longer and narrower again. Perhaps the plague could be a factor, since it struck across Western Europe, but at this stage that’s little more than a guess.”
Wharram Percy is the best preserved of the country’s 3,500 deserted villages and is managed by English Heritage. Analysis of the well preserved skeletal remains, most of which are medieval, dating back as far as the mid-10th century, has shed unprecedented light on the lives of peasants.
The site is six miles south east of Malton off the B1248 and is open during daylight hours. Entry is free. For further information visit www.english-heritage.org.uk