This week, archaeologists conducting excavations at the abandoned church of St. Mary’s in Stoke Mandeville, England, discovered strange stone carvings and medieval graffiti suspected to be “witches’ marks,” or protective symbols designed to ward off evil spirits.
Per a statement, the etchings are among the many “exciting” archaeological finds made ahead of construction of HS2, a controversial, high-speed railways set to connect much of Great Britain. Previous discoveries include the skeleton of an Iron Age murder victim, remnants of Britain’s prehistoric coastline and a prehistoric hunter-gatherer site on the outskirts of London.
Two stones found at St. Mary’s feature spoke-like lines radiating out from central holes—a design perhaps meant to entrap malicious spirits, dooming them to forever wander around an endless line or maze. Alternatively, the statement notes, the markings could be rudimentary sun dials, or scratch dials, used to signal when it was time for morning, midday and evening prayers.
“Discoveries such as these unusual markings have opened up discussions as to their purpose and usage, offering a fascinating insight into the past,” says Michael Court, lead archaeologist at HS2, in the statement.
One of the carvings identified at the site was situated close to ground level on the church’s west buttress, making it more likely to be a witches’ mark than a scratch dial. As the United Kingdom’s National Churches Trust notes, these timekeeping tools were typically scratched into churches’ south walls. Priests placed a stick in the dial’s central hole; when the stick’s shadow crossed one of the lines etched onto the wall, petitioners knew it was time for the next service.
Witches’ marks, meanwhile, were often inscribed near the entrances of churches, houses, barns or caves. According to Historic England, researchers have previously spotted the ritualistic symbols on buildings dating from the early medieval period to the 19th century.
As Hannah Furness wrote for the Telegraph in 2014, archaeologists previously discovered witches’ marks at a Kent estate visited by James I shortly after the failed Gunpowder Plot. The etchings—likely carved to protect the king—testified to the atmosphere of paranoia and uncertainty that dominated England following the assassination attempt. And just this month, BBC News reported that the New Forest National Park Authority had created a digital portal that allows users to explore witches’ marks and other etchings left on trees in England’s New Forest.
According to the statement, St. Mary’s was built as a private chapel around 1070. A church and aisle followed, and by the 1340s, the structure had become a communal house of worship. A new church located closer to the village replaced St. Mary’s in 1866, and the now-derelict building was demolished in the 1960s, per the Stoke Mandeville Parish Council.
To clear the way for HS2, archaeologists excavated and fully deconstructed the medieval church—a process last undertaken in Great Britain in the 1970s. Interestingly, the team found that some of St. Mary’s walls had survived the earlier demolition, standing nearly five feet tall and even boasting intact floors.
“The HS2 excavation work at Stoke Mandeville has allowed our team of archaeologists to uncover a unique site and get a once in a lifetime opportunity to examine the story of how the church at St. Mary’s developed,” says Andrew Harris, historic environment manager at contractor Fusion JV, in the statement. “The levels of preservation of some of the features of the church are surprising given its age, and we look forward to continuing this work and being able to share our discoveries with the local communities.”
The HS2 project itself is controversial, with critics from groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Stop HS2 citing high costs (upward of $128 billion, per Tom Burridge of BBC News), environmental risks and potential loss of heritage.
In February 2019, the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society raised concerns over HS2’s exhumation of human remains at St. Mary’s, as Thomas Bamford reported for the Bucks Herald at the time. Previously, the society had argued against the planned excavation, stating that “[t]he situation faced by Stoke Mandeville’s deserted village site, unprotected by legislation and prey to the bulldozers, is but one example among many sites along the route—in Buckinghamshire and other counties along the route.”