Markings have long been known to exist at the 60,000-year-old limestone gorge known as Creswell Crags in the United Kingdom, but visitors to these ancient rocks typically shrug them off as unfortunate graffiti. Subterranean explorers Hayley Clark and Ed Waters saw something different, however.

The pair are members of Subterranea Britannica, a group of passionate experts of man-made underground places. When they first peered upon these oft-ignored etchings, they noticed that the marks were suspiciously reminiscent of witches' marks that can sometimes be seen on stones from historic churches.

After other experts had a closer look, Clark and Waters' suspicions were confirmed. The scratches in the rocks were, in fact, ancient witches' marks, similar to engravings designed to ward off evil spirits known from other sites.

“These witches’ marks were in plain sight all the time! Being present at the moment their true significance was revealed will stay with me forever. After 17 years at Creswell Crags, it makes me wonder what else it has to surprise us. This remarkable place continues to give up its secrets,” said Heritage Facilitator John Charlesworth in a statement.

The most common symbol in the rock walls was a double VV engraving, believed to reference the Virgin Mary, and PM for Pace Maria. But the walls were littered with lines and boxes as well, like a maze, which is believed to confuse and trap the evil spirits which may attempt to enter the sacred spot.

Creswell Crags is a remarkable site also known for cave art left by ice age inhabitants of its caverns as long as 11,000 years ago. Before modern humans used these caves, they were occupied by Neanderthals. The fact that their walls also contain markings from ancient witches only adds to their historical value. It's no wonder the site was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012.

“Creswell Crags is already of international importance for its Ice Age art and ancient remains. To find this huge number of protection marks from the more recent past adds a whole new layer of discovery,” said Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England. “Even two hundred years ago, the English countryside was a very different place, death and disease were everyday companions and evil forces could readily be imagined in the dark. We can only speculate on what it was the people of Creswell feared might emerge from the underworld into these caves.”

Scratches made by ancient witches discovered in UK cave
Ancient cave markings were thought to ward off evil spirits.