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“Witch Marks” Found In Medieval Church Were To Keep Evil Spirits Away



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Jocelyne LeBlancGuest Writer

Ancient graffiti called “witch marks” were discovered in the ruins of a medieval church in the English village of Stoke Mandeville and they were put there in order to keep evil spirits away.

St. Mary’s church was constructed around the year 1070 as a private chapel for the lord of Stoke Mandeville in Buckinghamshire, England. It was renovated in the 1340s which made it bigger so that locals could also attend the church. But then in the 1860s when a new church was built, St. Mary’s was demolished.

“Witch marks” found on the medieval stones of St. Mary’s church in Stoke Mandeville, England (Image: © HS2 Ltd)

It was during the preparations for the construction of a new high-speed railway that revealed the ancient marks in the ruins of the church. The village, as well as the church, are directly in the path of where the tracks will be.

While archaeologists were excavating the church site, they found the remains of walls measuring about five feet in height as well as intact flooring. The most interesting discovery was stone beams that had very peculiar markings on them. The odd circular patterns that are called “witch marks” resembled wheel spokes with a hole that was put in the center with several lines spreading out from it. In fact, they found two different stones that contained those markings – one of them was on the ground level while the other was at an elevated location.

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

Those types of radial markings were also used as sundials to divide the day up with morning, mid-day, and evening prayers. However, since one of the stones was found at the ground level, its purpose was more than likely to protect the location against evil. In a statement, the project officials explained them as being put there to “ward off evil spirits by entrapping them in an endless line or maze”.

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

These “witch marks” have been found at other medieval locations around the United Kingdom and were normally etched into stones near entrances, fireplaces, and windows to stop evil forces from entering. And they’re not just found in churches as the etchings have been discovered in houses, barns, and even caves.

Recommended Articles by Jocelyne LeBlanc
About the Author

Jocelyne LeBlanc works full time as a writer and is also an author with two books currently published. She has written articles for several online websites, and had an article published in a Canadian magazine on the most haunted locations in Atlantic Canada. She has a fascination with the paranormal and ghost stories, especially those that included haunted houses. In her spare time, she loves reading, watching movies, making crafts, and watching hockey.

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What Was Life Like In Sumer, History’s First Civilization?



What Was Life Like in Sumer, History’s First Civilization?

Life went through some incredible changes when the first cities were built. Up until then, nearly every person had to work as a farmer or a hunter, moving from place to place in a constant struggle to survive.

All that changed about 7,000 years ago, when Sumer, the first civilization, began. For the first time in human history, people moved into the safety of a walled city. For the first time, they didn’t have to hunt or farm. They could become builders, astrologers, and teachers. They could develop things that, until then, no one had ever even dreamed of.

It was the dawn of history; the greatest change humans have ever undergone.

What must it have been like? What was it like for the first people who put aside their farms and their hunting tools and moved into the first cities? And how different was it from life today?

Artist’s impression of prehistoric hunters. (We Have Concerns)

It’s impossible to say for sure what they experienced, but in the ruins of the first cities, there are a few hints. Archaeologists and historians have scoured over the remains of Sumer to give us a glimpse into life in mankind’s first civilization.

Life Revolved Around the Temple

The first cities started as temples to the gods. They were built around a temple and run by priests called “Ensi” who ran religious services and acted as kings to the people who lived near them.

They were religious centres through-and-through. The first people likely moved in to be close the temples of their gods; there wouldn’t have been a non-believer among them. They were expected to make an offering before setting up their homes, and they had to contribute a part of what they grew to the temple.

Statuette of a Sumerian worshipper from the Early Dynastic Period III. (Luis García / CC BY SA 3.0)

As the communities around these temples grew, though, their purposes changed. The first shops and trade networks were set up in the courtyards of the temples, and the first secular jobs were created. Some of the elite left their farms and became professional traders, seamstresses, artists, and messengers.

Reconstruction of the Ziggurat at Ur. (Public Domain)
Beer & Taxes

The priest-kings set up an early system of taxation to feed their workers. Every family living within the protection of the city had to contribute a part of what they grew to the temple. The temple would then use what they’d earned to feed their priests, their craftsmen, and their traders.

Beer was usually how people were paid. In Sumer, beer wasn’t just a way to get a drunk. It was as thick as a milkshake and loaded with nutrients. More often than not, it would be served as the main course of a meal. That it got you drunk was just an added bonus.

The oldest depiction of beer-drinking shows people sipping from a communal vessel through reed straws. (Brauerstern)

The other way the temple would tax you was to call you in to work on public building projects. People would be called out of their homes and forced to spend a few months upgrading the temple or building new city walls. And soon, through the power of conscripted labour, these cities became the safest places on earth.

Life Inside and Outside the City Walls

The city walls served two purposes. Ostensibly, they were a way to keep the people safe. They protected them against the neighbouring cities, where warlords were starting to wrestle power from the priests and invade their neighbours. But in practice, they also served a second purpose. They made a thick, clay wall that divided the rich from the poor.

The most powerful men were those who didn’t grow their own food. They were the priests, the craftsmen, the administrators, and the traders who lived off the taxes gathered from the poor.

They lived in homes made out of mud bricks, designed to keep them cool through the blistering Sumerian summers. They had slaves and hired entertainers who would come into their homes and sing them songs or tell them stories while the family feasted.

But on the outside were the farmers. They spent their days tilling the soils and growing their crops, then came home to a hut made out of reeds tied together in tight bundles. They slept on mats of woven straw on the floor, and when it got cold, they burned palm fronds in a shallow pit in the middle of their huts.

The Beginning of Education

Life could change at any moment. The lowliest farmer could work his way up to the top as long as he was willing to work hard enough.

The farmers owned their land, and if they worked hard enough, they could buy more. Then they could sell their land out to others at a profit and grow even wealthier. Steadily, they could work their way up to a place inside the city walls.

Literacy was the best way in. As the Sumerians started to trade, tax, and hire workers, they found a need to keep track of everything they’d done. They developed the first written language, cuneiform. Reading and writing became the key to being an administrator, and the first schools were built.

Learning cuneiform, though, wasn’t easy. It took twelve years in school, starting at the age of seven, for a boy to learn everything he needed to know to become a scribe or a priest. He would work from dusk to dawn copying down what his teacher wrote on a tablet, and he’d often get beaten if he made a mistake.

The very wealthy would hire private tutors to keep teaching their children even after the classes ended. A noble boy who learned enough could become a priest, and that would make him one of the most powerful men in the city. Sumerian parents were willing to sacrifice everything to get their children to the top.

Social Status

In practice, though, it was very difficult to change your status. The schools were prohibitively expensive, and so it was very rare that anyone could move up in social standing. While a few living inside the city walls managed to turn their children into priests, there’s no record of anyone on the outside ever successfully moving in.

And if things went poorly, they could get a lot worse. If a family built up enough debts, they could be forced to sell their children into slavery. And if they still couldn’t make their payments, they could be dragged into slavery themselves.

Worker using an adze for cutting a piece of a chariot. Terracotta relief, early 2nd millennium BC. From Eshnunna. (Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC BY SA 2.5)

Still, some made it. Some who became slaves managed to earn enough to buy their own freedom. And some commoners rose all the way to the top. One woman, named Ku-Baba, started life as a tavern keeper and, in time, became to supreme ruler of a town called Kish.

Above all, though, they got the chance to be part of one of the greatest experiments in human history. Within their city walls, the first written language was created, the first trading routes were built, and the first laws were established. They were to witness the birth of civilization.

This article (What Was Life Like In Sumer, History’s First Civilization?) was originally created for Ancient Origins and is published here under Creative Commons.

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Giant Face Of Ucanha: Huge Sculpted Mayan Mask Found In Mexico



Giant Face of Ucanha: Huge Sculpted Mayan Mask Found in Mexico
Photo Credit: INAH

In the southeastern Mexican state of Yucatán on the Yucatán Peninsula, an archaeological team digging at a lightly explored site near the tiny, picturesque village of Ucanha uncovered something highly unusual. It was a giant human-looking face, as tall as a person and sculpted in stucco. Its features clearly identified it as a Mayan mask of the ancient Maya civilization, which enjoyed total hegemony in this part of the world more than one thousand years ago.

Mayan Mask Discovered in the Yucatán Peninsula

The Maya stucco relief was first discovered in 2017. Researchers from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico spent three years carefully restoring the sculpture, between periods when it was temporarily reburied to prevent its rapid deterioration from exposure to the elements. They were able to positively date the Mayan mask to the Late Pre-Classical era of the ancient Maya civilization, meaning it was created sometime between 300 BC and 250 AD.

View of the giant stucco face, or Mayan mask, in situ. The face was discovered in the Yucatán Peninsula near the village of Ucanha. (INAH)

In their statement announcing the finding, INAH stated that sculptures like these “represent the faces of individuals with particular features that can be associated with deities or with characters of prominent social status.” It was a common practice in Maya civilization to decorate buildings with large-scale, embedded decorative sculptures, which often featured the faces of rulers or gods. 

Relics like this are a rare find, however, since so many of the sculptures that once existed have been irrevocably damaged, or destroyed, or remain deeply buried in undiscovered locations. Nevertheless, similar sculpted stucco reliefs have been found in the villages of Acanceh and Izamal. But those are the only other giant faces discovered on the Yucatán Peninsula.

Recognizing the delicate nature of their discovery, the archaeologists have now reburied the fully-restored sculpture, thereby guaranteeing its preservation. However, tourists interested in getting a closer look at ancient Maya stucco reliefs can do so by traveling to Acanceh. There, several sculptures honouring Maya deities have been put on display to the public, in the town’s “Palace of the Stuccos.”

Detail of the stucco Mayan mask discovered near the village of Ucanha in Mexico. (INAH)
Olmec Influence on the Maya

The giant stucco Mayan mask represents outstanding examples of ancient Maya art. Maya gods and rulers were routinely honoured in sculpted form, and in addition to stucco, Maya artists also sculpted in stone, wood, bone, shells, and fired clay. The Maya interest in creating human-like sculpted faces dates back to the first millennium BC. Their artistic endeavours in this area were clearly influenced by their contacts with the Olmecs, the so-called “Mother Culture of Mesoamerica” that occupied the expansive land regions to the west of the Yucatán Peninsula until around 400 BC, when their societies vanished for reasons undetermined. 

Little is known about the nature of the contacts between the Olmecs and the Maya. But Olmec influence on Maya culture was profound. The Olmecs affected the Maya people’s spiritual beliefs, practices and even their recreational activities, as well as their preferences in artistic style and architecture.

The Olmecs are best known today for their colossal carved stone head statues, which weigh several tons each and are believed to represent the visages of revered Olmec rulers. The carved faces in these gigantic chunks of rock are reminiscent of the Mayan masks and giant faces created by Maya sculptors, who would have been commissioned to make these works of art by rulers in the various small kingdoms that comprised the greater Maya civilization.

In the late Pre-Classical era, when the giant face at Ucanha was sculpted, the Maya were living in still small but increasingly populated agricultural villages. These rapidly expanding settlements formed the seeds of the great Maya cities that arose to dominate the region in the Classical era, which ran from 250 AD to 900 AD. 

Larger-than-life artistic creations like the giant face of Ucanha are reflections of a society that was becoming increasingly confident and ambitious. At the height of their power, the Maya exercised political, cultural, and social control over a wide swath of southern Mexico and Central America. They were able to maintain that control for several centuries, before internal decay followed by Spanish conquest brought about the demise of their kingdoms.

Recognizing the sensitive nature of their discovery, the archaeologists have now reburied the fully-restored sculpture, thereby guaranteeing its preservation. (INAH)
Exploring History Through Artifacts Left Behind: The Mayan Mask

While the Maya people are still around in significant numbers, the great cultures built by their distant ancestors exist only in the form of the artifacts, relics, and architectural masterpieces they left behind. Amazing discoveries like the giant face at Ucanha don’t reveal many details about the culture or artists that created them. But they do act as markers of the ongoing cultural evolution that was changing Maya society, taking them away from their modest agrarian roots and transforming them into a diversified, ambitious, and highly successful urban culture, one which was ultimately doomed to extinction, as all great civilizations and empires seem to be.

Of course, what the Maya experienced during the transition from the Pre-Classical to the Classical era is the same type of evolutionary transformation that has been experienced in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere across the planet over the past two centuries. When archaeologists from the far future are digging through the rubble left behind following our fina collapse, they will likely be just as curious about the long-lost civilization that created the giant carved heads at Mount Rushmore as we are about the long-lost civilization that created the giant sculpted faces on the Yucatán Peninsula.

This article (Giant Face Of Ucanha: Huge Sculpted Mayan Mask Found In Mexico) was originally created for Ancient Origins and is published here under Creative Commons.

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Long-Lost Runestone From Viking Monument Recovered In Sweden



Long-Lost Runestone From Viking Monument Recovered In Sweden
Photo Credit: Annika Knarrström/Arkeologerna

Performing excavations in an area where new sewer lines are currently being installed, Swedish archaeologists have announced a remarkable and borderline miraculous find. While digging in half-frozen soil near the city of Ystad in December 2020 AD, they unearthed a large oblong-shaped runestone that featured an intricate carving of a powerful, ferocious wolf, which is known as Fenris (or Fenrir) in Norse mythology.

The discovery was shocking, in part because it was unexpected and in part because of what it represented. The rocky relic was quickly identified as one of the stones used to construct the Hunnestad Monument, a famous vertical and horizontal assemblage of image-bearing and inscribed runestones that had once stood just a few miles away, northwest of Ystad. The runestone had not been seen by anyone since the 18th century AD, when the once magnificent Hunnestad Monument was destroyed by an unappreciative and uncomprehending landowner.

Archaeologist Axel Krogh Hansen at the statue that was found during the excavation in front of a sewer line. (Image: Annika Knarrstreöm / Arkeologerna)
How A Super Famous Runestone Became Part Of A Bridge

It feels unbelievable, because it was a completely normal excavation monitoring,” exclaimed Axel Krogh Hansen, an archaeologist from Sweden’s National Historical Museums. “We found some porcelain fragments and bricks in the lower layers from the 18th century, and I joked a bit with the others that ‘now we have to be a little careful so we do not get rune or image stone,’ and then suddenly we have a carved stone right in front of us.” 

Incredibly, it seems that the newly recovered runestone was removed from the Hunnestad Monument and used as a foundation stone for a bridge constructed over a nearby river sometime in the distant past. This is the fourth stone (of the original eight) from the monument to be recovered; the other three are currently on display at the Kulturen Museum in Lund, where the new stone may soon be headed.

This is a fun, fantastic find, which we did not think would happen,” said Magnus Kallstrom, a rune expert from Sweden’s National Heritage Board. “This will give us a lot of new knowledge, in several areas, about art, religious history, and archaeology.”

The unique image stone has been missing since the 18th century. (Image: Annika Knarrström / Arkeologerna)
Reconstructing The Hunnestad Monument

Even though it was dismantled in the 18th century, the Hunnestad Monument remains one of Scandinavia’s most celebrated Viking-era monuments. Its enduring status was assured by the intricate drawings of Ole Worm, a Danish explorer and lover of antiquities who visited the Hunnestad site in 1643. 

The monument was constructed on an estate called Marsvinshome, which is located near the southern coast of Sweden, approximately seven miles (12 kilometres) from Ystad. Despite its location on Swedish territory, the estate was originally owned by Danish royalty and featured a magnificent castle (built in the 17th century AD) that still stands to this day. The Hunnestad Monument appears to have been constructed sometime between the 10th and 14th centuries AD, which means it had likely been standing for a few hundred years when it was sketched by Ole Worm.

The famous drawing of the Hunnestad Monument by Ole Worm (Ole Worm (1588-1654) / Public domain)

As revealed by Worm, the Hunnestad Monument was comprised of eight large, heavy stones in total. Five stood in a horizontal row, while three others were laid side-by-side on the ground before the standing stones. Five of the eight stones featured intricately carved images, and two of these also included runic inscriptions. 

Tragically, the monument was dismantled by a Swedish count named Erik Ruuth in the 1780s AD, who owned the Marsvinshome estate at that time. The disposition of some of the stones remains a mystery even to this day, but fortunately three of the image stones (including the two inscribed with runic symbols) were found inside Marsvinshome Castle in 1814. 

As the deciphered runic inscriptions make clear, the monument was constructed by two sons (Ásbjôrn and Tumi) of a man named Gunni Hand. Their purpose was to honour the memory of their fallen brothers, who were called Hróir and Leikfrøðr. Unfortunately, at some later date Tumi also passed away, and Ásbjôrn then inscribed and raised the eighth and final stone to memorialize him as well.

In keeping with the theme of honouring the dead, the three non-inscribed stones feature pictures of animals and animal-human hybrids. The imagery relates to important themes in Norse mythology, specifically to the process of transformation involved in completing the passage from earth to other realms, in the afterlife or elsewhere. 

It was a common practice in Viking culture to honour the dead by raising inscribed stone monuments. This, of course, is not far removed from the modern practice of erecting engraved headstones above the resting places of those who have passed on. In this instance, however, there is no evidence to suggest that any of Gunni Hand’s sons were interred at this location.

Runestone DR283 from the Hunnestad Monument depicts what is likely a member of the Varangian Guard. (Hedning / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Varangian Guard Runestone

The most intriguing monument image was found on the stone inscribed in honour of Hróir and Leikfrøðr, which, likely, was the first stone put in place. The image features a man standing tall and proud, wearing a long coat and pointed helmet and wielding a sharp axe. 

The garb and the weapon suggest this individual may have belonged to the Varangian Guard, an elite squad of bodyguards and soldiers who were attached to the Byzantine Army during the same timeframe in which the Hunnestad Monument was built. The Varangian Guard was comprised primarily of hired Viking mercenaries from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, who were sought after because of their reputation as fierce and indefatigable warriors.

Some Varangian Guard units were deployed exclusively to protect the reigning Byzantine emperor, while others were assigned battlefield duties during warfare. It was considered a high honour to be selected for and serve in the Varangian Guard, and the prestige was enhanced even more by the high pay associated with such a position.

Since no further details are provided in the Hunnestad inscriptions, it is impossible to ascertain the identity of the individual in the image. He may have represented one or both of Gunni Hand’s fallen sons, or perhaps he was Gunni Hand himself. Either way, the existence of the monument and its apparent connection to the Varangian Guard reveals the exalted status of the Hand family, who may very well have been descendants of Danish royal blood lines.

Runestone DR282 from the Hunnestad Monument, currently on display at Kulturen Museum, Sweden. (Hedning / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Final Piece Of The Puzzle?

As of now, only one of the original image stones from the Hunnestad Monument remains undiscovered (the three other stones were un-carved and un-inscribed and thus impossible to identify). Since this most recently recovered stone was salvaged for bridge construction, perhaps the missing image stone was taken for the same purpose. If so, continued excavations in the Ystad area may soon turn up another amazing find, which would allow archaeologists and historians to complete the Hunnestad Monument puzzle. 

This article (Long-Lost Runestone From Viking Monument Recovered In Sweden) was originally created for Ancient Origins and is published here under Creative Commons.

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Hidden In The Landscape: The Unique Architectural Heritage Of Icelandic Turf Houses



Hidden In The Landscape: The Unique Architectural Heritage Of Icelandic Turf Houses

Turf houses are a distinctive type of dwelling found in Iceland with origins dating back to the 9th century AD, which are attributed to the country’s Nordic settlers. The development of turf houses in Iceland took into consideration the island’s local climate, as well as the available building materials. Turf houses continued to be widely used until the middle of the 20th century. Today, few turf houses remain in Iceland and they are regarded as an architectural heritage of the country, being nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2011.

A turf house in Bakkagerði. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Unique Construction Used the Natural Materials of the Region

The turf houses of Iceland originate in the long-house tradition of the Norse. During the 9th century AD, the Vikings settled in Iceland, and brought their architectural traditions along with them. Over the centuries these structures were adapted to suit the Icelandic climate, and the natural resources available on the island.

In the Norse homeland of Scandinavia, long-houses were typically constructed with timber, preferably oak, which is native to the region. In Iceland, however, dwarf birch was much more readily available, and therefore was used to construct the frames of the turf houses. Additionally, the island has an abundance of lava rocks, as a result of eruptions. These were used for the construction of turf houses.

Earth covered building in Sænautasel (Saenautasel) in Iceland. (Image: Chris73/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The most distinct building material for these Icelandic structures is the turf itself. In Europe, turf was harvested in blocks from bogs, and used for construction purposes. This building technique has been in use since the Iron Age. In other parts of Northern Europe, turf was used by the poorer classes, though in Iceland both the rich and the poor exploited this natural resource. Thus walls and roofs of the Icelandic turf houses were made using this material. The houses of the rich had wooden frames on which the turf would be placed. The turf served as a natural heat insulator and provided protection for its inhabitants from the harsh northern climate. The turf needed replaced from time to time, depending on the regional frost and thaw patterns. In some places, for instance, the turf could last for as long as 20 years, whereas in others, up to 70 years.

‘Torfhaus’ Grass roofed hut in Iceland. (Image:
The Extreme Survival of Turf Houses

Up to the middle of the 20th century, turf houses were the norm in Iceland. A number of these turf houses still survive to this day with the oldest existing example of such a structure being the Keldur at Rangárvellir, on the southern border of the Icelandic highlands. Keldur consists of a dwelling house with a number of outbuildings. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Keldur was home to the Oddi clan, one of the powerful families in Iceland during the Free State era. Keldur has been rebuilt many times over the centuries. The current turf house there was rebuilt after the devastating earthquakes of 1896 and 1912. Keldur was acquired by the National Museum of Iceland in 1942 as part of the National Historic Buildings Collection and is opened to the public between June and August.

Earth covered turf homes in Keldur, Iceland. These were built in 1193 and are supposedly the oldest buildings in Iceland. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Modern Materials Take Hold – Spotlight on Preservation

Around the middle of the 1960s the last inhabitants of Iceland’s turf houses began moving out. These traditional structures had been gradually falling out of favour among Icelanders since the beginning of the 20th century. In the country’s capital of Reykjavik, for instance, concrete became the preferred building material when the city was rebuilt after being raised by fires in 1915. Three years later, Iceland obtained its independence from Denmark. A nationalistic campaign was launched to clear the country of its traditional buildings, including turf houses, in favour of modern ones. In more recent times, however, the boost of tourism in Iceland has brought the turf houses under the spotlight and has raised questions about their preservation. In 2011, the Turf House Tradition was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status, an indication of the Icelandic government’s efforts to boost the status of these traditional buildings.

This article (Hidden in the Landscape: The Unique Architectural Heritage of Icelandic Turf Houses) was originally created for Ancient Origins and is published here under Creative Commons.

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