Witch marks discovered in Stoke Mandeville?

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One of the stones from St Mary’s church, Stoke Mandeville, which is marked with a central hole with lines radiating from it. CREDIT: HS2 Ltd.

Unusual graffiti have been discovered among the ruins of the medieval church of St Mary’s in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire.

Archaeologists from Fusion JV have been carefully excavating and deconstructing the church ahead of HS2-related construction. The building was supposedly demolished after it was decommissioned in 1866, when a new church was built closer to the village, and so it came as a surprise to the team to discover that the walls of St Mary’s actually survived to a height of c.5ft, with the floors almost completely intact. This excellent preservation has allowed the team to reconstruct the evolution of the building. It appears to have started as a small private chapel, built c.1070, which served a local manor house. It was then extended, with a new aisle added, in the 1340s, when it began to be used as a church for the nearby village.

During the excavation, many of the stones from the walls of St Mary’s were found to have been marked with graffiti, and at least two of them featured a centrally drilled hole with lines radiating out from it in a circle. Similar designs found in other churches have been interpreted as early sun dials, used to help schedule the daily prayers. But sundials were often positioned close to the southern door of a church so as to have access to direct sunlight, and these markings were found on stones in the west buttress, very close to the ground and in a location that would be hard for the sun to reach. This has led the team to suspect that either these stones were repurposed when the chapel was converted into a parish church or they are, instead, examples of ‘witch marks’ (see CA 348), created to ward off evil spirits by trapping them in an impossible labyrinth of lines.

Based on what they have discovered so far, the team has created a video showing St Mary’s construction over time; the video can be found at https://mediacentre.hs2.org.uk/resources/hs2-vl-153-buckinghamshire-cgi-of-rebuilt-st-mary-s-church-stoke-mandeville. Work is continuing on the site and the team hopes to uncover further clues about the church’s history, including possible evidence for an earlier Anglo- Saxon structure.

This news article appears in issue 370 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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