Witches’ Marks Discovery ‘Largest in Britain’

The biggest concentration of protective marks ever found in British caves has been discovered at Creswell Crags in the East Midlands. The caves are home to the only Ice Age Rock art in Britain.

The marks, known as apotropaic marks or witches’ marks, are scribed in the walls and ceilings of the caves to ward off evil spirits. Creswell Crags is a limestone gorge on the Nottinghamshire/ Derbyshire border with history dating back 60,000 years. Enthusiasts, Hayley Clark and Ed Waters from the Subterranea Britannica group, made the discovery during a cave tour.

The Subterranea Britannica group, observing the Witches' Marks where the initial discovery was made.
The Subterranea Britannica group, observing the Witches' Marks where the initial discovery was made. © Creswell Heritage Trust

John Charlesworth, Heritage Facilitator and the tour leader at the time of the discovery, said

these witch marks were in plain sight all the time! After 17-years at Creswell Crags it makes me wonder what else it has to surprise us.

A common place to find the marks is historic churches and houses, as they are scribed to protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. The witch mark designs vary. The most popular design seen is the double 'VV' engravings, which may make reference to Mary, Virgin of Virgins and PM is Pace Maria.

Other designs are believed to be devices for capturing ‘evil’. These include diagonal lines, boxes and mazes and could be a response to a period of unexpected sickness, death or poor crops.

The site is protected as a scheduled monument and Historic England is advising on its future management, as well as the significance and interpretation of the witches’ marks. Creswell Crags are also working with academics to better understand the discovery. Tours of the caves  containing the witches’ marks will begin in late February 2019.

This is a large new area of research for historians and archaeologists, and so adds appreciatively to the importance of the Crags as a world resource.

Professor Ronald Hutton, an academic, TV presenter, and authority on folklore
These marks read 'VV'. The letters, 'VV', for Virgin of Virgins are also a common type of apotropaic mark.
The crossed 'V' engraved into the cave wall in Robin Hood Cave at Creswell Crags is calling upon Mary, Virgin of Virgins. The two Vs form an upside down M. These marks were commonly used to ward off evil or bad luck from the medieval period until the early 19th century. © Creswell Heritage Trust

Creswell Crags is already of international importance for its Ice Age art and ancient remains. To find this huge number of protection marks from the more recent past adds a whole new layer of discovery.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England
A large panel on the cave wall, showing lots of lines to trap evil.
Diagonal lines, boxes and mazes are believed to be devices for capturing or trapping ‘evil’. Whereas, the letters, 'VV', for Virgin of Virgins, also a common type of apotropaic mark, were thought to beseech the supreme protective power of the Virgin Mary. © Creswell Heritage Trust

We’re all still coming to terms with the importance of the find. It’s strange to imagine that 11,000 years after our Ice Age ancestors made their art on our walls, that fear of the unknown may have prompted superstitious locals to return to the rock and make their mark.

Paul Baker, Director of Creswell Crags

Here are other examples of witches’ marks across the country

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