Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Against all Evil: Protective Marks at the Burgess Property, Whiteway, NL

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(This would be a great paper title, wouldn’t it? I call it for later!)

Welcome back, readers! It has been quite the hectic summer so far this year, between PhD research, passing my thesis proposal defence at the end of May, gravestone restoration fieldwork, and a quick trip with my dad across Canada in the family van. Just before I flew west though, my husband and I visited the historic Burgess Property in Whiteway, NL. The property was receiving a new heritage plaque in honour of its designated status as a heritage property within the province, and there was a great turnout!

The buildings were constructed between the 1860s and 1900, and the complex includes former sawmill, a stable and store, a root cellar, a fishing stage, and the family home. It was wonderful to finally be able to visit the site and take a look around the structures, but I was there for a very specific reason…apotropaic magic. I know this post isn’t about gravestones per-say, but if you have been a reader for a little while, you’ll know that I’m currently studying and writing a manuscript about the use of protective magic on graves, and these symbols are among the ones we see in both contexts!

The Burgess fish stage (left) on the shore (photo by author 2022)
The Burgess Property stable and store building, with original siding portion visible (photo by author, 2022).

Months ago I was contacted by Heritage NL about this property, as Dale Jarvis and Maryssa Barris had identified a large hexfoil on the second storey of the stable and store. The beautiful one and one-half store wood shingle sided structure with a shed-roof store addition on the east facade stands closest to the road of the complex. In 2015, the complex underwent a much needed restoration, and a portion of the original shingle siding can be seen leaning against the restored exterior in the photo to the right. According to the HeritageNL report, linked below, the original shingles included red ochre for colouring.

One of the trades that the Burgess family partook in was as coopers, or barrel makers. Using large wood and metal compasses, they would trace out the patterns on timber cut across the path in their saw mill to build barrels on the property. When Maryssa and Dale were there recording the site for the recent report (found here), Bob Burgess opened the panel blocking light from the upper doorway on the front of the building, flooding the loft with natural light. Suddenly, two circles were illuminated in the light, on either side of the ladder opening to the stable below. To the right of the opening was a large circle, and on the bottom end of the opening was a large hexfoil of the same size. It is most likely that these were scratched into the flooring using one of the fixed-arm compasses that the Burgess family had on the property for coopering.

What a difference a little light makes, and why I always recommend the use of a bright flashlight when you’re trying to read a weathered gravestone inscription! The large hexfoil was very exciting, and the first example of a graffitied hexfoil I’ve seen in a domestic building in Newfoundland as well (if you know of any others, please let me know). You can clearly see the divot in the centre where the one point of the compass was stuck to draw the external circle, and based on the way the external point used to draw pulled at the wood fibres, it is evident that the exterior circle was drawn counter clockwise. I’ll include a close-up of that further down in this post! Closer to the window was the other large circle, also pictured in the grid below. It’s much fainter and doesn’t have the internal hexfoil, but because we know that circles were often drawn as protective graffiti in the same manner as hexfoils, especially in the UK, it is very likely that this circle was put here purposefully as well.

The placement of protective marks around the opening to a space was common in medieval and post-medieval use of such marks, or other protective magic such as taper burns. This was because doorways, windows, and chimneys were openings to the space that evil forces, demons, or other evils could make use of to enter a building. We even see hexfoils on bed frames or around the entrances to bedrooms, to protect the people within while they were sleeping. The hexfoil example at the Burgess stable is stunning, and the placement near one of the entrances to the stable makes perfect sense. Perhaps it was even put there to keep users of the ladder safe!

The red image above is also very interesting. It shows the exterior door of the stable, which opened into the space where animals would have been kept. Scratched onto the door is a rudimentary five-pointed star. The pentangle, or pentagram, is one of the oldest protective marks, and one that we actually have documentation for. In the poem, the anonymous poet writes that the five pointed star, drawn from one line as an ‘endless knot’, the name by which it was apparently known everywhere, stood for a number of things. In Christianity, the five points stood for the five wounds of Christ, and it also stood for the five virtues of the knight, and the five fingers on his hand, among other things. Translations of the poem are available online, if you’re interested!

The pentangle today typically appears in a circle, known by the name ‘pentagram’, where it is now associated with satanism or witchcraft, when historically it would have been a symbol of luck and protection against such evil. This is why we find it, like the hexfoil, scratched into one of the entrances of the stable; for the protection of the livestock within.

These three marks weren’t the only ones present on the stable. Bob Burgess showed me a photo of his father taken outside the stable in 1924, holding the rope of a cow standing beside him. In the background is the shed-roof extension of the stable, with a large white circle painted onto the door. While this circle is no longer here today (it has been repainted), it follows the tradition of circles and circular marks found on entry ways. In Newfoundland there have not been many hexfoils identified on historic structures to date, but there does appear to have been a withstanding tradition of circles, and some other patterns, on the doors of storehouses. Andrea O’Brien wrote a short article on the topic in 2019, available here, and comments that many stages and other outbuildings in certain parts of the province have these decorations. I believe that this is, at least in some part, a fossilisation of protective marks that can still be seen today. Other buildings at the Burgess Property reportedly had white circles painted on the doors as well, and I even identified an additional small circle carved onto the original roof slats in the store.

It is clear by this small survey of the Burgess Property’s protective marks, which I will be discussing further in my upcoming book on the use of protective marks in colonial settlements, particularly in a mortuary context, that protective marks were being utilized in the 19th and early 20th century in Newfoundland. It is likely that there are more of these marks to be found around the province, and it is an exciting aspect of historical archaeology and standing buildings archaeology that I’m excited to continue exploring!

As always, thank you for reading, and if you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear them!

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

2 thoughts on “Against all Evil: Protective Marks at the Burgess Property, Whiteway, NL

  1. Robyn – Another great post! Apotropaic marks are fascinating – kudos on finding and documenting these! There are obviously multiple apotropaic elements along with the red door pentagram, like the saltire cross, the butterfly mark, and the triangle. The hexafoil is beautiful too. Keep hunting and finding!

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