Magic and Meanings: Interpreting the Evidence (A Very Short Introduction…)

Previous posts  introduced my research background (and how this work, and that of others might inform this project); and outlines some of the research I’ve so far conducted on the topics covered by this project. This post (only very briefly) outlines the meanings of some of the potential ritual protections marks and deposits that were discussed in the previous posts that I’ll be examining through this project (also see the previous posts on research back ground, and on recent and current research). As I continue to learn more about the topic, and encounter further examples through building surveys, I shall provide further, more detailed, information relating to interpretation of these remain, so what follows is merely a very short and simple outline.

By considering together the cultural and social conditions within which were made (of the types considered),[i] and by exploring anthropological comparisons that might encourage the archaeologist to ‘think outside the box’, a link between the practices they represent, and supernatural concerns, seems highly likely. Previous and ongoing research by others supports the prospect that these traces may have held an ‘apotropaic’ function – believed to provide protection against malevolent forces. For this reason, objects and marks were commonly placed in locations through which it might be feared that evil might enter, especially chimneys, windows, and doors.

Recent large-scale studies of graffiti indicate the most common forms of potential apotropaic graffiti,[ii] which appear to have links to both Christian and non-Christian traditions. The letters M, W and overlapping double Vs (often inverted) are seen as influenced by Marian traditions, evoking the protection of the mother of Christ, while pentagrams were known (or believed) to be used in Early Modern occult practices, likely influenced by Solomonic Magic.[iii] The circular and rectangular marks have been seen as ‘spiritual traps’ – the eternal line ‘capturing’ malevolent spirits (or at least their attention).

The placement of shoes and other garments, certain ceramics, and animal bones, within and around the chimneys, windows, and doors of houses seem to have had a similar role.[iv] So the inscribed shoes on the windowsill of a church that I recently encountered (see this post) are particularly of interest me – especially as they are placed either side of a window mullion that has partially collapsed, and a supposed witch is recorded as buried nearby! (research that I hope to develop further for publication).


[i] See e.g. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, 1991 (London: Penguin).

[ii] See particularly the work of Matthew Champion (whose blog is here), through the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey; Dinah Eastop’s study of concealed garments; Brian Hoggard’s study of apotropaic material; Ceri Houlbrook’s work on concealed objects, here; June Swann’s study of concealed shoes (an example of which is available here. For published work, see especially the collection Ronald Hutton (ed.) Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain, 2016 (London: Palgrave Macmillan).

[iii] For example, see the wax ‘Seal of God’ (and now curated by the British Museum – seen here), decorated with pentacles, once belonging to the (in)famous Elizabethan court astrologer Dr John Dee.

[iv] See especially Ceri Houlbrook’s and June Swann’s work, op. cit. (note ii).


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