Archaeologists working in the English village of Stoke Mandeville have discovered some unusual stone carvings and graffiti at the site of a medieval church.
The Church of St Mary’s dates back to the eleventh century, but abandoned in the nineteenth century and fell into ruins. A high-speed rail network known as HS2 is now being built through the site, which led to an archaeological project to examine its remains.
Among the discoveries at the church were two stones with a central drilled hole from which a series of lines radiate in a circle have been uncovered at the site of St Mary’s. Historians consider these markings to be ‘witches’ marks, created to ward off evil spirits by entrapping them in an endless line or maze. There are several well-known examples of these across Britain both in churches as well as houses and sometimes even on furniture. However, they can also be interpreted as early sun dials, used by the church to divide up the day into morning prayer, midday prayer and evening prayer. These ‘scratch dials’ as they are known, are usually found close to the southern door of the church as it is a position better suited for a sun dial.
At St Mary’s, one example of the markings was found low down in the west buttress close to ground level which has led archaeologists to question its purpose. The position of the stone would have meant that it wouldn’t have served a purpose as a sun dial. This has left the possibility that it was there to ward off evil spirits or could have been a stone from a sun dial re-used as part of the church building.
Michael Court, Lead Archaeologist at HS2 Ltd explained, “The archaeology work being undertaken as part of the HS2 project is allowing us to reveal years of heritage and British history and share it with the world. Discoveries such as these unusual markings have opened up discussions as to their purpose and usage, offering a fascinating insight into the past.”
While the church was paritally demolished in the 1960s, the method and extent of demolition had not been recorded and it was therefore a surprise to the archaeologists to discover, that beneath the rubble the church survived to a height of almost five feet with floors intact.
Detailed research into the structure of the church has allowed archaeologists to piece together a history of the development of St Mary’s. The church started off as a chapel built in about 1070, shortly after the Norman Conquest and may have been at first the private chapel belonging to the lord of the manor at that time. The church was soon extended, and an aisle added in the 1340s. These new additions seem to mark a transition from a chapel used for private prayer to a church that was used by the local villagers.
The archaeological work has allowed researchers to make a digital recreation of the church:
Work to dismantle and excavate the church will continue into next year and archaeologists are looking forward to answering many more questions concerning the church and its architecture including discovering whether there may be an earlier church lying beneath its floor.