Museum Crush takes a deep dive into the dark caves of Creswell Crags to talk witch marks with Heritage Facilitator John Charlesworth
We made the announcement of the discovery of witch marks at Creswell Crags back in February 2019 and the very first tour after that, at 11 o’clock on Saturday morning, was full of pagans. They’d seen it in the news coverage the day before. and they just swarmed down like bees to a honey pot.
Since then we’ve had conspiracy theorists, we’ve had paranormal psychologists, we’ve had witches and we’ve had evangelical Christians trying to exorcise the cave and convert the tour guide. We even had a medium who attempted to communicate in the dark through the bars of the cave at the spirits she thought were there.
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It’s amazing how this discovery still actually connects with people today and we’re not opposed to any of it – so long as it doesn’t get out of hand!
Witch marks are actually found all over the place, in buildings particularly and also in caves and natural spaces; but it was October 2018 that we first discovered the full extent of them here. We had a group called Subterranea Britannica visiting and as soon as we got them into Robin Hood Cave two of them began looking very intently at the walls; they did the same on the way out and when I questioned them they said, “do you know you’ve got witch marks in here?”
I didn’t even know what witch marks were at the time, and I said, “oh, that’s interesting.” They were cavers from Salisbury who were part of a group who look for these kinds of things in caves in the Mendips. So I went back to base and declared that we’d found these witch marks in Robin Hood Cave and that it might be a nice story for Halloween.
We then started to do some online research and bring up images on Google and as we were scrolling we began discovering images that were very familiar to us that we knew were mixed in amongst all the graffiti in the caves. There were lots of ‘PMs’ and other symbols like the Double V that we see a lot in the caves, which is meant to stand for Virgin of Virgins and is an appeal to the Virgin Mary.
So we decided to explore the locations where we knew there was a lot of graffiti – some of them very close to where we’d been doing demonstrations for decades. We began in Robin Hood Cave following the wall around from left to right, which led us to a tunnel. It was absolutely covered in them. That then led us to a dark chamber that overhangs a massive cavern in a dark corner of the cave.
When we got inside it was like one of those horror movies where they go into a room, cast a light around it and see that there’s a demonic symbol on the wall, but when they cast the light further around, the whole room is plastered in them!
The chamber is about 12 feet in diameter and there was a band of witch marks, two or three feet thick, running all the way around the wall with hardly a finger space between them. There were none on the ceiling because of the stalactites and there was a massive hole in the floor which was thoroughly excavated by a Victorian archaeologist.
Wookey Hole had the previous largest amount of witch marks at 57, but I was counting them in Robin Hood Cave at the rate of over 40 an hour. I got to 103 and stopped. At that point we said “well, we’ve got something significant here”.
There are about 25 caves in the gorge, we’ve looked in nine of the larger ones and we’ve found witch marks in all of them. But in Robin Hood Cave the extent and clarity of them is absolutely stunning by the standard of caves elsewhere.
Witch marks is a relatively new and recent area of study and academics have only just begun looking at it seriously in the past 15 or 20 years. We’re hoping this is the beginning of other people going out and looking in their locations and finding more of this stuff to build up the lexicon of what kind of marks there are.
The problem you have however is that you’re looking at folk magic, superstition, beliefs and things that people in the lower orders of society were producing. Nobody was actually writing about them in the contemporary period when they were being made because the upper echelons – literate society – were not interested.
The majority of them seem to date to the 16th century onwards and I think that’s when most of ours also date to. What you have to bear in mind is a lot of the interpretation of these marks is retrospective and whilst scholarship is building and offering more insights into their possible meanings, we’re trying to span hundreds of years of knowledge here, attempting to get back into their original meanings.
Folk memory may well have already forgotten their original meaning even at the time they were being carved or we may be ascribing to them some other meaning never intended. So we’re in grey interpretative areas and there are going to be academic arguments for years to come – and probably forever.
An example of the debate is that some academics have suggested the chamber in Robin Hood Cave was not accessible before the Victorians cleared it. That, in turn, has been disproved by other archaeologists that know it well.
We also have to consider what is a witch mark and what is modern graffiti or someone’s initials. This has had a bearing on the quantity that we’ve publicised. For instance the letters “PM” appear a lot and that could quite easily be somebody’s initials – and for a very long time that’s what we thought it was. But they seem to have been carved by different hands, repeated over and over again and there are versions of it elsewhere in the country, which are considered to be witch marks, so it seems to me that they’re highly likely to be that.
The local background at the time these marks were being made is that there was a village with maybe four or five cottages, a small mill, and a population of 20 or 30, at one end of the gorge. This was demolished in the 19th century by the Dukes of Portland who wanted to create a kind of romantic landscape, so as they did back then, they moved the village.
The village of Creswell that is there now came about as a result of the arrival of deep mining in the late 19th century. So you’ve got a very small community on the estate of the Dukes of Portland, on the edge of Welbeck Estate, and it’s likely that they’re the ones who are responsible for the majority of the marks inside the caves.
We also have one of those traditional witch characters associated with the gorge whose name is Mother Grundy, and although we know no stories about her, she is in the order of things like the Witch of Wookey Hole, Mother Shipton in Yorkshire and Black Annis from North Leicestershire. These characters crop up particularly in caves or in what look like primeval landscapes, which people considered as being naturally and spiritually dangerous, or liminal, between worlds.
An academic called Alison Fearn from the University of Leicester is also looking at the possibility of either a Christian pilgrimage route or another parallel pilgrimage tradition of visiting the Crags for the purpose of leaving your mark. That study is in its very early stages.
There’s another theory about witch marks in caves, which comes from Professor Ronald Hutton at Bristol University. He thinks that within natural spaces it could be that something has been exorcised into the cave and they’re using these marks to keep it there, which is why I call the chamber in Robin Hood Cave the Demon’s Prison Cell, because it’s a way of trapping it.
What we need to bear in mind about that chamber is that it’s been thoroughly excavated all the way down the hole and into the tunnel leading off from it. We’ve been down there to see if there are any further marks and there are not. You can see the excavation line because there’s nothing below it. You also now can’t get across to the other side of the chamber, so clearly there was a floor there allowing people to get in to make their mark.
We will never be able to tell whether there was some sort of depression or hole in the middle of the floor, but if there was, that could have created the conditions for a flow of air. Evil spirits are traditionally supposed to follow flows of air and can get into a house by a window or a door – that’s why they would put witch marks around them. So it might be that they were concerned about this flow of air in the cave.
However until it was excavated it may be that the whole floor was completely solid in which case it fits more into the theory that it may be a place to trap things that might be worrying you.
Just imagine crawling through into the darkness, finding these really, really dark spaces, a place where you think evil might be lurking, how scared are you going to be doing that?
You could be coming in there marking a space on the wall, going away, and when you come back you’re not be able to find that space again. So you find another empty space, which is not protected, which may explain why there are so many of them in the caves at Creswell Crags.
Some of the more intricate and deep ones would take a while to carve, but then of course there are also a lot of quick marks and entangled lines that just seem to be fairly random. I always describe it as being like an elephant’s skin when you’re looking at these marks.
There are also ladder marks, which academics and researchers are still attempting to get to the bottom of. You normally find them in churches and Christian contexts, which may have a specific meaning for Jacob’s Ladder and the connection of earth to heaven, but here we don’t know if these are completed or not. Have they intended to do more of it and just left it like that? It could even be a grid or maze that traps the evil spirit in one place.
We’ve got a group of three universities working with us now; Leicester, Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam, to explore some of these and other aspects.
The Sheffield University Archaeological Department has a long standing relationship with us and have a new programme of excavation. This summer they have been not only looking at the Ice Age evidence from Creswell but have dug a test pit in the area where the village was. They began tracing one of the cottage and uncovered a flagstone floor of walls outside belonging to a cottage which stood outside one of the caves , as part of a longer process to gather more archaeological evidence from the late medieval and modern period.
Sheffield Hallam University is providing the technical wizardry to actually scan the caves and create a 3D digital model. They’ve scanned the chamber in Robin Hood Cave and another chamber right next to it that’s also yielding an awful lot, which will allow us to unpick what we think are witch marks from the more modern, tourist graffiti.
There’s graffiti in there as well from the excavators who were helping the Victorian archaeologists and of course we have the Ice Age rock art on the opposite side of the gorge as well. There are hints from some of the people that have seen this material – particularly at Leicester University – that there might be Bronze Age and Iron Age markings mixed in with it.
Principally of course we’re known as an Ice Age site, but there is a plan for a conference hosted by Sheffield University looking at human activity within our landscape and how people have responded to it across time from the Ice Age through to the modern period and perhaps projecting how this might continue into the future as well.
People’s often visceral response to the environment here is a fascinating story, and the witch marks are now very much part of that.
John Charlesworth was speaking to Richard Moss
Creswell Crags’ partnership with Sheffield Hallam University has now resulted in a 3D visualisation of Robin Hood’s Cave; watch it below.
Creswell Crags Museum and Heritage centre
Creswell Crags is a picturesque limestone gorge honeycombed with caves and smaller fissures. Stone tools and remains of animals excavated from the caves by archaeologists provide evidence for a fascinating story of life during the Ice Age between 60,000 and 10,000 years ago. The Museum and Education Centre at the…