Burn marks and etches in wood or metal may seem innocuous to most but for 19th century Tasmanians they hide a secret.
The marks have been found in homes in the North and across Tasmania and, finally, they have been deciphered by historian Ian Evans.
The protection symbols, which include hexafoils, deliberate candle burn marks, and clothing and shoes concealed in voids in buildings were used in the UK for centuries.
However, Tasmanian Magic Research Project director Evans, who led the project, said there had been no logged evidence of the marks in Tasmania prior to his research.
“Australia was seen as a ‘desert’ for these magic marks, nobody had been able to confirm their existence,” he said.
Dr Evans’ final report, which has been handed in over the weekend, confirms for the first time that warding marks travelled from the United Kingdom, across the Indian Ocean, and Bass Strait, to Tasmania.
A remarkable find, which Dr Evans said was of particular surprise to him, was the location of a Tasmanian devil skull concealed in a void in a southern Tasmanian house.
“This shows that there were Tasmanians who have adapted the symbols to suit their conditions,” Dr Evans said.
Concealment was a common ward practice in the UK but was also found to be common in Tasmania.
The Tasmanian devil was found at a property called Morningside, on Macquarie River.
“The skull had been severed and was buried in a sub-floor space at the rear entrance of the house. Nothing else of the animal remained.”
Dr Evans said recently deceased cats were found regularly in the UK but he did not find any in Tasmania.
“Many concealed cats have been identified in Australia since 2010 but this is the first known use of a native animal for an apotropaic purpose,” the PhD report read.
It appears that there is no single form of evil-averting magic practiced throughout Tasmania.Tasmanian Magic Research Project director Ian Evans
Dr Evans said this was common practice for builders, to conceal clothing, shoes and other items into voids in houses.
Dead cats were used, for unknown reasons, when builders couldn’t get access to the house’s new owners’ garments or shoes to place into the void.
Common places to find garments or cats include underneath the front step, in the chimney or under the hearth.
The most notable discovery, of 39 concealed shoes and a variety of other objects, was found at Woodbury, north of Oatlands.
The second field trip to catalogue the marks was done over January with a small team of five people who visited houses in the northern Midlands, and some houses around Launceston and in the south.
Dr Evans and his location scout Tully Brookes were joined by photographer Steven Dunbar, social media content producer Ruth Hazleton and cook Vanessa Grant.
During the second field trip, the Tasmanian Magic Research Project visited numerous properties in the Northern Midlands, and covered more than 5000 kilometres and had days that extended to 10 or 12 hours.
The Tasmanian Magic Research Project first began field trips in 2017 and the idea was sparked after Dr Evans had a lunch with some friends in the UK.
He said the lunch conversation turned towards the warding practices, which were common in the UK in the 19th century.
“I had an idea, if they were still prevalent in the 19th century in the UK then it was likely they had made their way to Australia and Tasmania,” he said.
The research project uncovered particular groups of Tasmanian society who were more likely to use the marks and warding culture.
“It appears that there is no single form of evil-averting magic practiced throughout Tasmania. But particular groups within the community practiced their own varieties of magic that we found to be widespread,” Dr Evans said in his PhD report.
People such as blacksmiths, grooms, builders and ‘cunning folk’ were the most likely people to practice the warding rituals.
Dr Evans said deliberate burn marks in stables were the most common marks found in Tasmania, and were found at properties that were likely to have grooms and stable-workers.
Burn marks were found at Northern Tasmanian properties such as Woolmers, at Longford, Connorville and Fairfield, both at Cressy, and Wesleydale, at Mole Creek.
Wesleydale, which houses an 1840s stable building on the property, was found to have 22 burn marks across seven stalls. The later-built stables, with four stalls, had 10 burn marks and two on the door frame.
Old Wesleydale, also at Mole Creek, was found to have 24 burn marks across two existing stalls for heavy horses and one mark in the tack room.
Dr Evans said the burn marks had been analysed by John Dean, a retired senior archaeologist in the UK, who indicated the marks looked to be deliberately made.
“Grooms or other stable-workers would take a lit candle and press it into the wood, usually near the door frame,” Dr Evans said.
“Then, they would scratch away the burned bits and press the candle again.”
Dr Evans said the warding symbol was used to protect the stables from fire, which was a huge risk in the 1800s.
Warding practices appeared to be an undercurrent of society, Dr Evans said.
“It was something they did in parallel with religion, but it wasn’t specifically about religion,” he said.
Fear and superstition of their new home in Tasmania is possibly a reason that spurred on the use of the marks.
Dr Evans also said people probably didn’t talk about it when they used the marks because of the fear of being declared witches.
Another group in society to use the protective marks were blacksmiths, who etched x-shaped marks into hinges that were used on doors to buildings where animals were kept or where food was stored or prepared for human consumption.
Dr Evans said he didn’t find out exactly what the x-shaped hinges meant but they were not found on hinges at the entrance to spaces not used for those purposes.
“It appears it is a sign to not enter, but for or against what we don’t know, Dr Evans said.
The project is supported by the University of Hertfordshire, in the United Kingdom, the Vernacular Architecture Group and private backer Steven Sharman.
For more information follow the Tasmanian Magic Research Project on Facebook.