What was it about England’s Creswell Crags that so frightened its ancient visitors? Whatever it was, they sure left a lot of ritual markings to commemorate it. Now researchers are making their own investigations.
Last week, a major discovery was made in a scattered stretch of British caves. Apotropaic markings — carvings with barrier-like qualities intended to fend off evil spirits, more commonly known as “witches’ marks” — were discovered “in plain sight” along the surface of a cave inside England’s Creswell Crags.
Originally written off as “victorian graffiti,” the marks were rediscovered by enthusiasts on a tour of the Creswell Crags — a 60,000-year-old limestone gorge on the border between the English regions of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. And with so many found in one place, experts now wonder what the caves must have held, in order to be so frightening to its long-ago visitors.
Apotropaic markings are traditionally found in historic buildings throughout England, carved into old stone doorways or windows so as to deter evil, or ensure a healthy harvest.
According to Alison Fearn, a researcher and protective-markings expert at Leicester University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, the apotropaic markings in the caves dated from sometime between the 16th century to the early 19th century. During this period, witches’ marks were a pagan ritual, one not formally associated with religion. Fearn compared it to things people do today, like crossing your fingers or saying, “Oh god.” “It just becomes a protective symbol,” she told The Guardian. “It was a mark you always made to protect yourself.”
But judging by the sheer volume of these markings, at the time of their inscription these caverns must have held something worse than your average slimer. “They are everywhere,” said Paul Baker, director of Creswell Heritage Trust, in an interview with The Guardian. “How scared were they?”
Witchcraft has been a dormant force across the UK in recent years. The last time someone was jailed for witchcraft in England was in 1944, when Scottish-born Helen Duncan was accused of fraud, and of releasing war secrets through a seance. Today, ancient scratchings and anti-witchcraft charms have become a complementary attribute for historic buildings throughout the country — one or two witches’ marks on a cottage wall can make for a funny note to add to an AirBnB listing, but that’s about it.
However, this wasn’t always true. “Even 200 years ago, the English countryside was a very different place; death and disease were everyday companions, and evil forces could readily be imagined in the dark,” Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, told the Huffington Post. “We can only speculate on what it was the people of Creswell feared might emerge from the underworld into these caves.”
What separates the caves from the average witch-mark sighting is the sheer volume. Hundreds of letters, symbols and patterns were discovered — the largest concentration of apotropaic marks ever found in the UK. According to a report by ITV, the largest known quantity of witches’ marks in caves in Britain had previously been 57 in Somerset, but the number at Creswell Crags is far higher. The scale and variety of the marks made throughout the cave is unprecedented.
“This discovery is significant because it looks like the largest assemblage of protective marks ever found in British caves, and possibly anywhere in Britain,” folklore expert Professor Ronald Hutton said in a joint press release by Historic England and Creswell Heritage Trust. He calls the marks “a very important contribution, at a stroke, to one of the most significant current areas of new scholarly research.”
Fearn recently visited the Creswell Crags and expressed to The Guardian her own shock of the cave’s volume. “I cannot emphasise how important this corpus of apotropaia is to graffiti research,” she said. “I think off the top of my head, it is the largest number of examples found anywhere and in any context in the UK.”
Researchers are not sure when the markings were made or by whom, but this many markings in one location couldn’t have been completed in recent times without someone taking notice. Regardless, some seriously bad juju has to be on the other side of the cavern walls.
Owners of the cave site wasted no time in giving the witches’ marks their own separate tour. While the cave owners haven’t yet titled the tour Highway To Hell, the new discovery is sure to bring a renewed frenzy of travelers. And if the cave does prove to hold the gates to the underworld, one thing is for certain; they better serve beer.