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Virtually Explore a Forest Filled With Witches’ Marks and Other Tree Etchings

A publicly sourced portal spotlights centuries of graffiti left in England’s New Forest

This circular witches' mark was thought to ward off evil. (New Forest National Park Authority)
smithsonianmag.com

England’s New Forest is home to trees that bear the marks of more than 500 years of human activity. Known as arborglyphs, the etchings range from charms against evil that may have been carved during Shakespeare’s time to much more recent initials and dates.

Visitors from around the world can now explore the glen virtually via a free digital display, including an interactive map showing where specific carvings were found, reports BBC News.

One common type of graffiti seen in the forest is the “King’s Mark,” an arrowhead-shaped symbol used by the Royal Navy to identify beeches and oaks slated for use in shipbuilding. Some of the trees bearing the sign were spared from the ax after Great Britain shifted to using iron and steel for its warships in the early 19th century. Other carvings show eagles, boats, houses and faces.

A number of trees display concentric circles identified as “witches’ marks.” Per Historic England, the signs were probably intended to ward off evil spirits. Researchers have found witches’ marks—which often take the form of double “VV” carvings—at locations all over the country, including caves, barns, churches and inns. Most were made between the 16th and early 19th centuries.

King's Mark
An arrowhead shape known as the "King's Mark" may have earmarked this tree for harvest by the Royal Navy. (New Forest National Park Authority)

Covering more than 200 square miles in southern England’s Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset counties, the New Forest National Park encompasses forests, wetlands, villages, grazing land and tourist attractions. Its history dates back to the years after the Norman Conquest, when William I declared the land a royal forest and used it as a private hunting ground for his family and guests.

Two of William’s sons, as well as one grandson, later died in the forest. As the New Forest Commoner notes, the incidents may have simply been hunting accidents—but a more sinister explanation posits that the deaths served as “divine retribution” for the royal family’s harsh treatment of locals.

To create the online portal, the New Forest National Park Authority asked visitors to send in photos of tree etchings found in the forest. The group has now digitized dozens of the marks.

“While they were known about, they have never been put online or properly recorded,” community archaeologist Hilde van der Heul tells BBC News. “It’s interesting to see how people connected with the natural landscape.”

Those connections continued into the 20th and 21st centuries. Per the Guardian’s Steven Morris, some markings date to World War II, when Americans were stationed at a nearby base. One such carving reads “HD, USA, 1944.” Another particularly decorative etching lies deep in the forest, partly covered by lichen; it recalls the “Summer of Love 1967.”

This carving was probably made by a U.S. service member stationed nearby during World War II. (Dean Hind via New Forest National Park Authority)
One of the most decorative tree etchings in the forest dates to 1967. (Dean Hind via New Forest National Park Authority)
Some marks seen on the New Forest trees are more recent. (Dean Hind via New Forest National Park Authority)

More recent carvings include names and messages inscribed within the past several years. But park authorities are quick to emphasize that those inspired by the markings shouldn’t start making some of their own, as doing so can damage the trees’ health.

Archaeologist Lawrence Shaw tells the Guardian that park visitors were eager to help preserve the arborglyphs before it’s too late.

“Trees get blown over, are felled or die,” he says. “These inscriptions can be a fragile record so we felt it was important to get people to help map them. The project really gripped people’s imaginations.”

Still, Shaw adds, it’s important not to assume too much about any given etching.

“We had one beautiful ‘Om’ symbol and wondered if it might have been created by Indian soldiers based nearby,” he notes. “We were contacted by someone who said, no, it was her sister who had a penchant for the symbol in the 1970s.”

About Livia Gershon
Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.

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