How do you keep your home safe? Modern answers might include locks and burglar alarms, perhaps a noisy dog, a Neighbourhood Watch sticker in the window, or even security cameras. If we were able to travel centuries back in time to consult our predecessors, though, many of them would describe magical rites. Much has been written about archaeological evidence for these practices – the ‘apotropaic marks’, or protective symbols, that have been found scratched into window frames, roof beams, floorboards, and fireplaces in numerous historic homes (see p.46).
When found in domestic contexts, these motifs – which include daisy wheels and incised letters – are usually interpreted as charms to ward off fire and bad fortune, and to thwart witches and demons. Marks like these are often associated with the medieval period, where they also appear etched onto church walls (see CA 315), but these impulses endured into much more recent times. Take, for example, the 17th-century ‘witch marks’ found at the grand stately home of Knole, in Kent (CA 297), scored into joists beneath the floorboards and around the fireplace in the ‘Upper King’s Room’ – a space intended as a bedroom for James I. Even more recent are the 18th-/19th-century markings recorded at Harmondsworth Great Barn (CA 329).
The exact purpose of markings like these remains a subject of some debate, but the beliefs behind other magical efforts are easier to interpret. Witchbottles are unmistakable counter-charms used by those who imagined themselves cursed or bewitched. These objects, considered in detail in CA 169, are referred to in later 17th-century sources; they were filled with urine and sharp objects, with the intention of turning curses or spells back on those who uttered them. To date, the latest census of known examples records over 200 witch-bottles, ranging in date from 17th-century bellarmines to 18th-century and later glass bottles, that had been buried or otherwise concealed.
The discovery we will be exploring in this article is the opposite of apotropaic objects like those described above – that is, it represents physical evidence of the intention to harm. It also demonstrates the surprising – perhaps disturbing to some – fact that belief in cursing persisted into the very recent past.
Our story begins in 2018, when C. R Archaeology travelled to Wern Wen Farm, near Llandudno, north Wales, to record its historic buildings. Overlooking the Afon Ganol floodplain, the Grade II-listed farmhouse and its outbuildings form a small rural complex with the neighbouring property of Wern Goch. Although the farmhouse was remodelled in the 19th century, it has 17th- to mid-18th-century origins, and C. R Archaeology was commissioned to record the farmstead buildings before further renovations took place.
These works uncovered an impressive inglenook fireplace in the farmhouse, but the greatest surprise came during the recording of an early 19th-century barn. One of the tie-beams flanking the building’s threshing floor was etched with an inscription. All inscriptions are exciting, but this one appeared to be particularly novel, if not unique. It was designed to be seen by those entering the barn, but the building’s doorway had been inaccessible for years and the inscription had been deliberately covered up. When the boards obscuring the truss were removed, we understood why. Carved letters some six inches high spelled out the words: MELLDIGEDIG + FYDDO + LLE+ HWN + AMEN. This Welsh phrase translates as ‘May this place be cursed. Amen’ or ‘Cursed be this place. Amen’.
What did this intimidating inscription mean? It was clearly deliberately located to be easily visible from the threshing floor. The text itself is prominent, extending the length of the tie-beam and carved in clear, large letters. It was evidently created with the tie-beam in situ, and as it includes one upsidedown letter (an F), we might imagine the carver briefly becoming confused while working on a ladder with paper in hand. Yet the style of the lettering, all capitalised and with serifs, and with emphatic crosses cut between each of the words, is solemn and archaic. Its text clearly shows the influence of the Bible, especially the maledictions in Deuteronomy. This was a fascinating find, but no known parallels could be found by the project team. They duly contacted buildings and folklore expert Richard Suggett at the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments Wales to see if he could help.
During a visit to the site, Richard tried to establish a date for the inscription. The barn that houses it is a rather superior three-bay building with distinctive twin-tiered ventilation slits (probably estate-built), and ridgeless, pegged tie-beam roof-trusses with raking struts that flank the central threshing bay. If the inscription, carved in situ, is broadly contemporary with the barn’s construction, it must date from the first half of the 19th century. Surviving historical documents can help us to link this period to specific individuals – the tithe apportionment tells us that in 1845 Wern Wen (a farm of 28 acres) was owned by Robert Parry Evans and the tenant was Abel Evans. Sadly, these documents do not shed light on what must have been an interesting backstory behind the disconcerting inscription. We can only speculate that the carved curse might have been directed at a landlord by a departing tenant, or by a disgruntled farm servant.
While an early 19th-century date for the curse might seem surprising, it is not the only example of cursing known in the area from this period. At this time, there was much consternation about a so-called ‘cursing well’ at Llaneilianyn-Rhos, some five miles away. The reputation of Ffynnon Elian as a cursing well developed in the later 18th century, and its notoriety offers an extraordinary negative variant of the positive values attributed to the ubiquitous holy and curative wells widely attested in British folklore. It is referred to by the antiquarian Thomas Pennant in his History of Whiteford and Holywell (1796), where he describes how local farmers and ‘coal-adventurers’ suffered from the depredations of the poor but were reluctant to take any action for fear of being cursed in St Elian’s well.
The curious duality of the site is recorded by Pennant – it was also in great repute as a healing well, where the saint’s powers could be invoked by earnest prayers in the neighbouring church. St Elian was called on as a means of discovering thieves and recovering stolen property, too, but a third, muchdarker custom surrounded the site as well. Pennant writes: ‘some repair to him to imprecate their neighbours, and to request the saint to afflict with sudden death, or with some great misfortune, any persons who may have offended them’. Indeed, he notes that he was himself threatened by a local with ‘the vengeance of St Elian’ when he inadvertently caused offence.
The power of words
The well of Ffynnon Elian had become a weapon in the hands of the impoverished peasantry, and more generally for those who wanted to right a burning wrong. Many stories were told of the tragedies associated with the well and its notorious keepers, and we might see the Wern Wen inscription as a complementary part of this tradition, representing another example of how cursing was intended to right a perceived injustice.
Another north Welsh piece of the puzzle comes from a pair of finds from Anglesey: a cursing slate with wax images and initials found at Llaneilian, and a ‘cursing pot’ from Holyhead. Both are now held by Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery. In 1871, a labourer was removing an old bank or fence on Penrhos Bardwyn farm, Holyhead, when he found a black pot or ‘pipkin’. Its mouth was covered by a piece of slate on which was scratched the name ‘NANNY ROBERTS’, and inside the vessel were the remains of a frog whose body had been skewered with large pins. These were the remains of a 19th-century cursing ritual: according to folklore, if someone wanted to wish misfortune against another individual, they could stick pins into a live frog and then put the unfortunate creature in a pot with the name of the intended victim.
While these three examples might seem disparate, what unites them is the importance of literacy in order to impose a specific malediction. (Here, we might draw parallels with the famous lead curse-tablets found at Roman sites like Bath.) At Ffynnon Elian, the initials of those who were to be cursed were scratched onto a scrap of slate or lead that was thrown into the well. The Anglesey cursing pot spells out the name of the intended victim in full. And the Wern Wen inscription is a conditional curse that does not name a particular individual, but it is nonetheless written in full.
The barn inscription provides tangible evidence of a now-vanished tradition of getting your own back through ritual cursing. The tradition was faltering by the mid-19th century, and the cursing well at Ffynnon Elian fell into disuse after c.1850, following sporadic prosecutions of those connected with it. It was the heyday of Nonconformity, and a veil was drawn over the whole nightmare, which was rarely referred to subsequently. Archaeological echoes like those at Wern Wen are therefore vital to understanding the techniques of those who wished ill on their neighbours. The farmstead curse stands as a fascinating counterpart to the more benevolent charms against witchcraft, evil men and women, and ‘hardness of heart’ which continued to circulate in 19th-century Wales, yet it represents a class of writings that is far less widely researched. This is a tradition that badly needs further discussion, and there are doubtless many more secrets – surprising, sinister, or otherwise – to reveal.
Ronald Hutton (ed.) Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery, and Witchcraft in Christian Britain (Palgrave, 2016), especially chapter 5 by Brian H oggard, ‘Witch bottles: their contents, contexts and uses’. Richard Suggett, A History of Magic and Witchcraft in Wales ( History Press, 2008), especially chapter 6 on cursing wells.
All images: C. R. Archaeology, unless otherwise stated.