Witch-repellent graffiti discovered in ruins of medieval UK church

Witch marks found on the medieval stones of St. Mary's church in Stoke Mandeville, England
"Witch marks" found on the medieval stones of St. Mary's church in Stoke Mandeville, England (Image credit: HS2 Ltd)

Learning no lessons from horror films of yore, Britain has plans for a high-speed rail project that will lay tracks over the ruins of a medieval church. And, apparently, the project has run into some trouble with witches and dark spirits.

According to archaeologists working at Stoke Mandeville, a village that lies in the path of the proposed railway, an early excavation of the site's 700-year-old church revealed stone beams etched with strange circular patterns known as "witch marks."

These markings, which look like the spokes of a wheel with a hole drilled into the center, were created to "ward off evil spirits by entrapping them in an endless line or maze," project officials wrote in a statement.

Michael Court, lead archaeologist at HS2 Ltd (the company behind the rail project) said the unusual markings offer a "fascinating insight into the past" at a site that has long been lost to history.

Related: Black magic: History's 6 most infamous witch trials

The church in question, named St. Mary's, was erected around 1070 as a private chapel for the lord of Stoke Mandeville in what is now Buckinghamshire, England, according to the statement. The church building was expanded in the 1340s to accommodate local villagers, then ultimately demolished in the 1860s when a new church popped up closer to town.

More "witch marks" carved into the stones of St. Mary's church. (Image credit: HS2 Ltd)

Yet during the  first excavation of the site, the HS2 team found many sections of the medieval building to be in surprisingly good condition, with walls surviving to a height of almost 5 feet (1.5 meters) and floors intact. The witch marks were carved into two different stones, one sitting at ground level and the other higher up. Given the location of the ground-level stone, the radial pattern wasn't likely used as a sundial, something that is typically found near the southern doors of medieval churches, the archaeologists said.

Similar witch markings have turned up at medieval sites across the U.K., including a set discovered last year at Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge and cave complex that has been inhabited on and off since the last ice age. The markings are typically etched into stones near doorways, windows and fireplaces, to keep spirits away.

The markings did not save St. Mary's from its ultimate destruction. But with the scrawled stones still intact, modern witches keen on trying the new high-speed train may need to reroute their travels away from Stoke Mandeville.

A CG rendering of what St. Mary's looked like in its prime, 700 years ago. (Image credit: HS2 Ltd)

Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon Specktor

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.