The town of Bolton in northwestern England has yielded a curious historical find. Old buildings in the town have been discovered to feature medieval-era graffiti that was meant to protect the people inside them from evil spirits.
A project called the Medieval Graffiti Survey is endeavoring to catalogue all of the graffiti made on Bolton buildings to try to get a picture of old English folk beliefs. The Survey is being conducted by Bolton Archaeology and Egyptology Society, and is focused on buildings that were constructed prior to 1700 A.D.
The Project commenced with a visit to the Hall i'th' Wood, a local museum that was previously a 16th-century manor house. They were granted access to many private rooms that are not open to the public, so that they could study the rooms' "witch markings." The rooms featured symbols drawn by lit tapers, including daisy wheels and a double-V that was meant to denote "Virgin Virgins."
According to Ian Trumble, the chairman of Bolton Archaeology and Egyptology, the symbols were carved into wood and stone in the rooms' doorways to prevent evil entities from passing through them.
There are about fifteen society members currently working on the graffiti survey. Trumble is hopeful that a pending tour of the hall, to be open to the public, will increase interest in the survey. They hope to recruit volunteers to be trained in how to catalogue the symbols.
The society also has its sights set on other important Bolton historical landmarks like Smithills Hall, the Deane Church and Bolton Parish Church. Project volunteers will be granted access to parts of the buildings that are normally closed.
According to Trumble, the graffiti varies by region, according to differences in local superstitions. He believes that it's of historical importance to learn how these symbols changed as English spiritual beliefs evolved over time.
Spirit wards are by no means just a relic of the past. Folk beliefs in malevolent spirits are still ubiquitous in the world. The fear of demons, witches and ghosts is so common as to be nearly taken for granted as a component of human belief.
The survey is still underway and is sure to yield some interesting historical insights into how English superstition changed as the centuries progressed. And it seems like an exciting project for local people to be engaged with. Hopefully the sigils still work and nobody picks up some spooks along the way.