Ampulla and Graffiti

In a previous piece on this blog, I noted similarities between the so-called “witch-marks” and other apotropaic signs found as graffiti in churches and old buildings, and symbols found on lead tokens recorded on the PAS database. In the course of my lugubrious browsing of the database during the current lockdown (I unfortunately find myself in the high risk group) I noticed the same symbols, or some of them at least, on other artefacts; in particular on medieval ampullae.

Usually dated to the 13th-15th centuries, an ampulla is a small flask, most of them made from lead alloy, designed to contain a small amount of Holy water, oil or similar thaumaturgic fluid. They are well represented on the database with over 2000 records showing up from a simple search. They are close cousins of the pilgrim badge and in many ways served a similar function as a physical, visible symbol of a pilgrimage. Like badges, they could be worn – either suspended on a cord or chain, or sewn onto clothing or hats. In Piers Ploughman, Langland describes a pilgrim:

“And hundreds of ampulles

On his hat seten

signes of synay

and shells of Galice”

Whilst it has been suggested that poets such as Langland and Chaucer were to some extent parodying the pilgrim attire (hundreds of ampulles on a hat does seem excessive!) there is no doubt that people did bedeck themselves with these items, and it is tempting to think of ampullae and badges as being souvenirs – the medieval equivalent of the trinkets we buy today to demonstrate we have visited a place; something akin to an “I heart Canterbury” t-shirt. And to an extent they did fulfill that function, but there was a lot more to it. People undertook pilgrimages for different reasons. Apart from the obvious religious motivations, there were social and secular aspects; some pilgrimages were actually assigned as a penance. So we may assume people viewed badges and ampullae with similar duality; they could be simultaneously objects of personal devotion and reverance, and charismatic objects conveying status and kudos on the owner and wearer.

Two ampullae I record, DENO-BD4CBD and DENO-2E23D6 were decorated with the multi-petalled “daisy wheel” design so frequently found amongst church graffiti and on lead tokens.

Two medieval ampullae recorded in Derbyshire. Left: DENO-BD4CBD (Copyright: Derby Museums Trust, License: CC-BY). Right: DENO-2E23D6 (Copyright: Simon Nicholson).

A quick search found other examples, such as YORYM-973896, which also has on the other face, the “VV” symbol (the “Marion mark”), another symbol very common in church graffiti and also found on tokens. On ampullae is it suggested the symbol refers to Our Lady of Walsingham, a popular shrine.

A medieval ampulla found in Yorkshire with “daisy wheel” on one side and “VV” mark on the other. Record ID is YORYM-973896 (Copyright: York Museums Trust, License: CC-BY).

The reverse of “my” two ampullae show cross-hatched heart symbols, which are also found as graffiti, although not so commonly as the daisy wheel of VV. There would seem to be a connection between the decoration of some ampulla and common church graffiti. The exact nature of that connection is hard to pin down. Given the apotropaic function attributed to these symbols when found on buildings, it is tempting to assume the same magical/spiritual protection was being invoked by placing them on ampullae, giving the ampulla the function of amulet as well as any devotional and charismatic utility. But there is also a “chicken and egg” aspect to this question – are the ampullae decorations inspired by familiar graffiti or vice versa? In his book on medieval graffiti, Mathew Champion speculates that some graffiti were carved into the fabric of the church to solemnise a vow or to commemorate the completion of a vow or undertaking. He particularly cites the preponderance of crosses of various forms, but if I could indulge in a little speculation of my own, might it not be possible that a returning pilgrim may carve a symbol copied from the ampulla they have carried with them from the shrine they visited?

Taking my flight of fancy a little further, I note that there are other symbols and images found in church graffiti that, it could be argued, resemble those on ampullae. The Archiepiscopal mantle and mitre are quite common on ampullae associated with the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, and often the mantle is stylised as a cross-hatched triangle, which is a recognised graffito. Finally, scallop shells are found amongst graffiti and many ampullae are in the form of scallop shells – the “shells of Galice” mentioned by Langland. This symbol is strongly associated with the shrine of St. James of Compostela, but the scallop was also a generic symbol of pilgrimage.

I am aware of the strong possibility of barking up wrong trees here, but I find the similarities in these symbols tantalising and thought I would share my thoughts.


The vision of Piers Plowman, William Langland, London and New York: J.M. Dent and E.P. Dutton, 1978

Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches, Mathew Champion, Ebury Press: 1st Edition, 2015

Medieval Pilgrim Badges: Souvenirs or Valuable Charismatic Objects?, Margrete Figenschou Simonsen, 

Defence Against The Dark Arts

Last year in the run-up to Halloween, Lauren posted on this forum a variety of objects from the database which had a spooky connection. Included in this selection was a deliberately concealed clog, LANCUM-76D192, hidden in the walls of a building as protection against witchcraft and evil spirits.

Image showing three views of a child's clog, for the right foot. The top image shows the sole of the clog, the middle image shows the top of the clog, and the bottom image shows the instep side of the clog.
A child’s clog found concealed in the walls of a building (LANCUM-76D192). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY.

This practice of concealing footwear in the walls or hearths was surprisingly common, and persisted well into the twentieth century; its origins are interesting. Whilst the association of footwear with good luck is probably very ancient, the specific notion that a boot or shoe can protect against diabolic attack can possibly be attributed, in England at least, to the legend of “Saint” John Schorne. Schorne was rector of North Marston in the late 13th century and several miracles are attributed to him, although he was never officially made a saint. In particular, he was supposed to have trapped a devil in a boot, and is usually depicted holding a boot with a little devil peeping out, as in this replica of a pilgrim badge.

Image of a silver badge in the shape of a monk. In his left hand he holds a book and in his right hand he holds a long boot. A winged devil peeks out of the top of the boot.
A replica pilgrim badge of John Schorne – he holds a boot in his right hand from which a small devil peeps. Copyright: Brian Hoggard (@folkmagicman on Twitter).

Footwear is not the only type of object to be concealed within walls as protection against witchcraft. Another surprisingly common and long-lived practice (again surviving well into the twentieth century) was the creation and placement of so-called “Witch Bottles”, examples of which can be found on the database, for example KENT-312DC2.

Anti-witch bottle would be a better term as this was a counter-measure. You made a witch bottle if you thought you were under magical attack. To make one, you needed a container – glass, ceramic or even metal, any sort would do. The bottle of choice, however, seems to have been a “bellarmine” – a 17th/18th century pot-bellied stoneware vessel bearing a bearded male face. An example on the database is LON-0480C0.

Image showing a brown ceramic vessel from six different viewpoints.
A complete Bartmann (“bearded man”), or “bellarmine” bottle dating to AD1500-1700 (LON-0480C0). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY.

Inside you placed some sharp objects, such as nails or pins, along with something of yourself (e.g. hair, nail clippings, fragments of clothing), and most importantly some of your urine! The container had to be sealed, heated (do NOT try this at home!) and then concealed – in walls, under floorboards and especially around hearths and fireplaces. This was a type of sympathetic magic; whilst it might seem counter-intuitive to to use some of your own items, the thinking was that the witch who was trying to harm you had established a magical link with you. So, by using your own hair and urine in association with pins and nails, you could send the spell right back at them – they would be seriously afflicted, they would fine it painful to pass urine, they would have severe abdominal pains and possibly even die! The evidence for this practice is not just physical, there are multiple written accounts. For example, Cotton Mather, the prominent 17th century New England Puritan minister, describes the use of witch bottles as counter charms in one of his many pamphlets.

Another common concealed object, an example of which was recently brought into the museum where I volunteer, is a cat. A very real, and unfortunately very dead, cat. It was found within the walls of a barn in Nether Heage, Derbyshire. Cat lovers look away now!

A naturally mummified cat found concealed within the walls of a barn in Derbyshire. Copyright: Simon Nicholson, License: CC_BY.

Like the concealing of shoes, this is an astonishingly common practice and such naturally dried and preserved felines have been found in old buildings across the country. The idea seems to have been to invoke some kind of preternatural protection. Possibly, at least in some cases, it was protection against vermin – cats have been found deliberately posed in a pouncing position, some even with dead mice or rats between their paws.

But in other cases it seems the cats were placed with the intent of protecting against more than vermin. The association of cats with the supernatural is also very ancient. It is possible that again some sort of sympathetic magic was going on – using a creature associated with witchcraft to rebound harmful magic. The reasons cats are associated with witchcraft are complex. Malcolm Jones, writing in “The Secret Middle Ages”, suggests cats were believed to be the focus of idolatry in the Cathar heresy. They weren’t but people believed it anyway (fake news medieval style!). In any event, the link between cats and witches was firmly in the public consciousness by the post-modern period (remember Holt the Witch’s familiar in the famous woodcut of Mathew Hopkins?). And of course, the fact is that the poor cat seems to have been deliberately killed for the purposes of this ritual. Could this be a continuation of the very ancient concept of the foundation sacrifice?

Further information on such concealed objects can be found at the Concealed and Revealed Project and the MOLA website.

Have a happy Halloween!

Token protection?

As some of you may know, for the past couple of years I have been engaged in a little project which has taken me around the churches of the Derbyshire Peak, the idea being to photograph in detail the alabaster tomb effigies that are unusually common in the region.

My notion was to create a visual record of the buckles and strap fittings depicted on the effigies, so as to help date comparable objects on the database – the effigies are usually dated and most would have been made either during the lifetime of the deceased or shortly after death, and several sources attest to their accuracy in depicting clothing and armour.

 This is still a work in progress, and one that I really must get organised properly and figure out a method of publication or distribution! However, what I want to talk about here is not the effigy project but something I became aware of during my photography trips, which may be of interest to some.

I noticed to my surprise, and initially to my tongue-tutting annoyance, that most of the effigies were covered with graffiti.

Image of a carved stone tomb effigy of a bishop. Close-up view of the head lying on pillow. The face has graffiti etched on it.
A graffiti-covered effigy. Copyright: Simon Nicholson.

On examination, it was clear that the majority was not recent, that the names, initials and symbols had been accumulating for centuries. I mentioned this in conversation to a curator at my local museum, who informed me that church graffiti, much of it medieval, was an interesting field of study in its own right and directed me to Matthew Champion’s excellent book on the subject.

In addition to centuries of variations on ‘Kilroy was here’ are older and more mysterious symbols. Crosses appear in abundance, some crude, some elaborate. Some were possibly carved to solemnise a vow or to mark the completion of an undertaking such as a pilgrimage; others may have had an apotropaic purpose, that is to ward off evil influences or bad luck.

There are shoes and ships, birds and beasts, shields and heraldic devices, houses and windmills. There are regular grids of lines which may have been for playing ‘merrils’, a form of nine men’s morris.

Two symbols in particular are so common as to be almost ubiquitous, and also hauntingly familiar to me, because I had seen them before – on the PAS database! The first is the “daisy wheel” or hexafoil, the geometric six petalled flower.

Hexafoil design carved into masonry. Copyright: Simon Nicholson.

This design was once thought to be a mason’s mark, because it was assumed you needed a mason’s pair of compasses to draw it. You may have learned to make the design at school using a pencil and compass!  But it is now realised that it is perfectly possible to construct the design using domestic scissors or shears, such as would have been readily available in medieval and post-medieval times.

This has led to speculation that the design was predominantly drawn by women. However I found a preponderance of daisy wheels and variants in a set of pews that I was told had been exclusively for male use. As for the significance of the design, there may be an association with the Virgin Mary or the cult of the Magdelene. This is suggested by the vesica shape of the petals. It is of course possible that too much is being read into this; the design may have been popular simply because it is so easy to construct. The consensus is that whatever its origins, the design became an apotropaic mark. The other very common symbol is the VV, two V shapes next to one another or slightly overlapping, to resemble a W.

Image of 16 graffiti marks carved into stone. Each is shaped as two letter V overlapping each other side by side to form a W shape. The marks are arranged in a four-by-four grid.
A selection of “Marian marks” – graffiti related to the Virgin Mary. Image: Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey,

This stands for Virgo Virginum (Virgin of Virgins) and is an invocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Inverted, the shape forms M for Maria, hence one name for these symbols, Marian marks. They are also known as witch marks and are often found in old buildings, not just churches, as a counter-witchcraft measure.

These two symbols struck me as familiar when I started to spot them amongst church graffiti because, as I said, I have seen them quite often on objects recorded on the database. Coin-sized disks of lead or lead alloy bearing a daisy wheel design are quite common finds; hundreds are recorded on our database. Some are recorded as weights or gaming pieces, but most are described as agricultural tokens or tallies. Although the daisy wheel is recognised in the Baylis classification of tokens (as type 16), and in the Powell 32 type system ( type 1) it is acknowledged (by Edward Fletcher and others) that the identification of these disks as agricultural tokens is uncertain, in contrast with other designs such as the cross and pellet types or others depicting windmills or bags of corn.  In his book, Fletcher actually poses the questions ‘who…will unearth the answer to those puzzling petal types?’ He goes on to ponder if they may be communion tokens, or guild membership tokens, but concludes that they remain enigmatic.

Image of the front and back of two lead alloy tokens arranged side by side.
Lead alloy tokens with the “daisy wheel” design on it. Left: DENO-2DEA34. Right: HESH-D24239. Copyright: Derby Museums Trust, and Birmingham Museums Trust, Licence: CC-BY.

I am now indulging in pure speculation, but I cannot help but wonder if there is a connection between these artefacts and the near identical marks found in graffiti? We know that many churches had the facility to cast lead and some produced their own communion tokens.

Could the tokens perhaps have had a secular purpose, but with their manufacturers inspired by a design familiar in the fabric of their local church? Perhaps the disks are not tokens in the usual sense but some kind of talismanic object, bearing a familiar apotropaic symbol. Likewise, it is assumed that the W mark appearing on similar leaden disks is an initial (Powell type 2), but the similarity to Marian marks is, to me, quite striking. Are these also apotropaic objects, invoking the protection and intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Or is it the other way round, are the graffiti inspired by familiarity with the “tokens”?

Image of the front and back of a circular token with a W shaped mark on it.
A lead token with the “W” or overlapping “V” mark (KENT-01BEFB). Copyright: Kent County Council.

I think this is an interesting area of research. Perhaps someone out there can shed more light?

Books mentioned:-

Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches 1st Edition by Matthew Champion (ISBN: 9780091960414)

Leaden Tallies and Tokens by E Fletcher (IBSN-10 1897738269)

Shakespearean Angels

Sophie has already posted on this blog about the wonderful gold Angel coin found in the Derbyshire Dales in 2018, (record DENO-C5A99E ) but I think it is worth returning to the subject, as the Angel has more tales to tell.

Gold angel of Henry VII from near Ashbourne (DENO-C5A99E). Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. Licence: CC BY

The Angel was an iconic  coin, by Tudor times it sufficiently embedded in the public consciousness for  Shakespeare to reference it several times in his plays, for example:

They have in England a coin which bears the figure of an Angel‘ Merchant of Venice, 2:7

 and again

See Thou shake the bags

Of hoarding Abbots,

Imprisoned Angels set at liberty.‘ King John 3:2

For me it is significant that the Bard could be confident that most of his audience (including, presumably, the infamous groundlings and stinkards!) would be familiar enough with the Angel to get such references, even if they were not wealthy enough to have an Angel in their purse.

A commonly asked question regarding such coins is ‘how much were they worth?’, and it is a difficult question to answer. The value of the Angel varied from the time of its introduction, but our Derbyshire Angel would have been worth about ten shillings. That is to say, this gold coin was worth ten contemporary silver shillings, which is not the same thing as saying it would have been worth fifty pence (the value of ten old shillings at the time of decimalisation.) It is not easy to give an accurate idea of the purchasing power of such an amount, because the prices of many commodities, and in particular of labour, were disproportionately different to today. However, we can say that the Angel would have represented about two and a half week’s wages for a skilled workman such as a carpenter.

Engraving depicting Charles the Second seated centre, with two men kneeling before him. Charles has both hands placed on the head of one of the kneeling men as he performs the Royal Touch ceremony to cure the man of scrofula.
Charles II performing the Royal Touch; engraving by Robert White, 1664 (public domain).

Another interesting fact about the Angel is that it is associated with the ceremony of touching for the King’s Evil. This was a ritual based on the belief that the anointed monarch had the God-given ability to cure scrofula (A form of non-pulmonary tuberculosis). This is connected to the concept of the divine right of Kings, and the public ceremony in which the King demonstrated this preternatural healing was first introduced by Edward the Confessor and revived by James I. Shakespeare also references this in Macbeth 4:3;

 ”The mere despair of  Surgery he cures

Hanging a Golden stamp around their necks.”

The Golden stamp was an Angel, pierced and hung on a chain or thread, touched and blessed by the monarch and then placed around the neck of his scrofulous subject. Note that this ceremony avoids the monarch actually having to directly touch the Scrofula sufferer (who at least got a valuable gold coin even if they weren’t cured!).

Simon Goes In Search Of Medieval Buckles

The idea for this project came from a speculative suggestion made by Dr Helen Geake during PAS training on common medieval finds. Discussing the difficulties of accurately dating buckles and other detectorists finds without a conventional archaeological context, Dr Geake raised the possibility of comparing finds with images on memorial effigies and brasses of known obituary date.

As I regularly go walking in the Derbyshire Peak, and was aware that many churches in the area had good quality medieval and post-medieval memorials (due to the availability of alabaster from the Chellaston mines and quarries), I decided to visit as many memorials as possible and photograph them with a view to comparing buckles and fittings with examples on the PAS database.

An initial consideration was the issue of whether fittings depicted on memorials were a) authentic and b) sufficiently detailed to enable recognition. Resources such as the Victorian and Albert Museum and the Church Monuments Society suggested this was indeed the case, and in fact there are precedents for this type of comparison project; for example, in compiling the London Museum Medieval Catalogue (1940) Ward-Perkins used Brasses and Memorials extensively to obtain dates.

The project is still in its early stages, but results so far are promising. The effigies of Sir Robert Frances, Earl of Formark, at St Wystan’s Church in Repton, and John de la Pole at Radbourne Parish Church, both 15th Century, have yielded quite detailed straps and fittings (allowing for the centuries of wear, damage and graffiti!). The effigies are life sized, allowing measurements to be taken with reasonable confidence. Although, in the case of buckles, the strap-bar and pin are mostly obscured by the strap, the frame is usually quite distinct.

Image showing a buckle on the armoured foot of a medieval knight depicted in a tomb effigy.
Buckles on the foot of a tomb effigy of John de la Pole at Radbourne Parish Church. Copyright: Simon Nicholson. License: CC-BY.

A Cannon SX160 IS camera was used to take 16mpx images in JPEG format. After some experimentation it was found that by adding a layer in Photoshop and applying a sketch filter, then reducing the opacity of the new layer, edges could be enhanced without significantly altering the overall image, this enabled the frame shape to be compared with catalogues and examples on the PAS database. For example, John de la Pole is wearing several distinctive double-loop trapezoidal buckles with pointed ends to the frames. Similar shaped frames are described in Whitehead (p.82), but with the additional feature of rounded knobs at either end of the strap-bar, which are absent on the de la Pole buckles (Whitehead ascribes a 17th Century date to this design). Examples can be found on the PAS database; e.g. PUBLIC-861B43, NLM-C50B52, SUSS-156CF6.

I hope to visit more churches over the coming months and compile a more substantial collection of images for comparison.

Image of a four buckles depicted on a medieval tomb effigy.
Close up of buckles on a medieval tomb effigy of John de la Pole at Radbourne Parish Church. Copyright: Simon Nicholson. License: CC-BY

Meet the Volunteers: Simon

Simon Nicholson. Copyright: Simon Nicholson. License: All Rights Reserved
Simon Nicholson. Copyright: Simon Nicholson. License: All Rights Reserved


Tell us about yourself.

I have been volunteering with the PAS in Derby since November 2015. My background is in adult education; my specialist area is Astronomy.

What does your role involve?

I assist the FLO identifying and recording items brought in by members of the public.

What area of history/archaeology are you most interested in?

I have long been interested in the Roman period, but since volunteering with the PAS I have become interested in a wider range of periods, especially Anglo-Saxon.

Why did you start volunteering for the PAS?

I am recovering from a stroke, and was looking for a positive use of my time. As I have always had an interest in history, working with the PAS sounded very attractive. I support the aims and goals of the PAS, I feel the recording of found objects is an important part of preserving our heritage, and I can appreciate the value of the database as a resource for future research.

What do you enjoy most about volunteering for the PAS?

I enjoy the chance to see and handle ancient objects, and the challenge of identifying artefacts. The variety of objects that come in is amazing.  I find the training provided excellent; I have learned so much.

What is the most exciting find from Derbyshire you have recorded so far?

DENO-648944 is a Polden-Hill type Roman brooch.

Roman Polden Hill Brooch
Roman Polden Hill Brooch.(DENO-648944) Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. License CC-BY

I find personal items like brooches very evocative.

What is your favorite find from Derbyshire that has been recorded on the PAS database and why?

DENO-D9B7E3 is an Iron Age coin of the Corieltavi tribe.

Iron Age Quarter Stater
Iron Age North Eastern Lindsey Scyphate Quarter Stater (DENO-D987E3)
Copyright Derby Museum Trust. License: CC-BY

Before working on the PAS I had an image of Iron Age Britons as rather primitive, huddled in their woad waiting for the Romans to civilize them! But objects like this, beautifully crafted, demonstrate a sophisticated culture.