At St Lawrence’s church, Bapchild, Kent, concealed objects have been discovered embedded in one of the pillars, including a purported mammoth’s tooth* and a fragment of an Anglo-Saxon sword.
Like so many churches, St Lawrence’s in Bapchild, Kent claims a Saxon origin although so far, no archaeological remains have been recovered to substantiate that assertion. However, we do know that the village began life as a Saxon settlement named Beccancelde (‘spring of the brook’) or Baccancelde (‘Spring of a man called Bacca’)- which possibly referred to the watercourse which once fed the medieval Tonge Mill (Mills 1991: 22). The first phase of the stone building we now see dates to the 11th or 12th centuries, depending on the source one reads; the latter is more likely (English Heritage 2022).
In the 19th century, restorers found a mammoth’s tooth and a fragment of an iron blade embedded in the masonry of one of the piers. There seems to be some confusion over whether the items were discovered in the easternmost pillar of the Nave or one of those in the chancel adjacent to the altar. One interpretation suggested that they had been put there for ‘safe keeping’ whilst another suggested that they had been intentionally placed to be, ‘preserved as a curiosity’.
Objects hidden, concealed or plastered into the fabric of buildings is not an uncommon find in 16th-17th century (or earlier) structures, nor is the practice of inserting iron objects into the un-mortared gaps between stones or voids around window and door frames.
Re-Purposed Fossils & Prehistoric Flint Tools
The mammoth molar would most likely have been a long-curated talisman as the tooth is shiny and worn from handling over a long period. At the time of its discovery it is unlikely that the workmen would have had a full understanding of what it was – or how old it was!
Objects like these, such as commonly-found fossils and prehistoric flint tools were once believed to have possessed magical or evil-averting powers. Belemnites were believed to be the physical manifestation of lightning bolts having hit the ground and were thought to have curative qualities – efficacious against rheumatism and sore eyes. Unusual-looking stones and fossils were often placed into the livestock’s drinking water as an animal cure-all. Man-made objects such as Neolithic stone axe heads were similarly revered and curated in later periods (Merrifield 1987:160). Prehistoric arrowheads were referred to as ‘thunder-stones’ and collected in the belief that they were created by lightning and, if carried upon the person, would protect the individual from a lightning strike (Hoggard 2020: 125).
Naturally holed flint nodules, known as ‘Hag stones,’ were hung in stables, cow-sheds and domestic houses to repel witches and were believed to protect horses and cattle from disease (Merrifield 1987:161-2), whilst smaller portable versions were often carried in the pocket for personal protection (Billingsley 2021: 46).
The protection of domesticated animals housed in livestock sheds was effected through the application of apotropaic symbols or the introduction of iron objects (such as work implements hung over the animal bays). Such measures were a regular feature of ritual building protection within farm complexes in the 16th and 17th centuries.
In the 17th century, livestock – particularly horses – could be protected from being ‘hag ridden’ in the night through the introduction of metal objects hung in the stables as it was believed iron, ‘hinders all the Opperations of those that travel in the Intrigues of these hidden Dominions.’ In 18th Century Scotland it was believed that in order to protect their buildings householders should place knives in the walls of their houses. In 1866 Henderson stated that, ‘metallic substances are held throughout the North to counteract the influence of witchcraft and every kind of evil spirit.’
The discovery of two 16th century knives (one etched with magical symbols) which had been mortared into the wall of Cade House, West Malling, Kent were considered to be examples of a ritual act intended to ward against evil. (Merrifield 1987:162) had little doubt that they had been placed there to deter witches, as the tradition of iron used as an apotropaic in the past is known from numerous other sources.
Traditionally, iron has always been deployed by householders as it was generally held that a witch could not pass over iron concealed at a threshold; a tradition that stretched from as far north as Argyllshire to as far south as Suffolk. In Essex, an old knife or pair of scissors would be placed under the door mat; whilst in Anglesey iron was buried close to the gate; in Kent there are records of householders in the 19th century burying knives under the doorstep – all done to, ‘ward off witches and evil spirits’ (Opie & Tatum 1989:209).
The Anglo-Saxon Sword
The fragment of sword included in the case is an advanced state of corrosion which attests to its high ferrous content but not necessarily its age. It is unknown as to whether it is really an Anglo-Saxon sword. At the time of deposition that may not have been the point; an objects’ ‘mythical’ provenance was often considered to be more important than its real one when it came to magical talismans. You have to want to believe.
A preliminary survey of St Lawrence’s has also revealed a substantial corpora of memorial and apotropaic graffiti throughout the church. A carved wheel (with internal radiating spokes not unlike a miniature ‘Wheel of Life’ or solar symbol) has been recorded in the chancel, close to where the tooth and blade were purported to have been found.
Several intentional taper burn marks on the rear of the south door and saltire patterns incorporated into the design of the Tudor porch could all be interpreted as different ‘layers of protection’ which had been added to the building in an attempt to negate access by unwanted forces.
This article was originally published on the RPM&RP Facebook page, where it elicited a response from subscriber Tom Lord who said,
“The molar is an Ice Age Straight Tusked Elephant and not a Mammoth This is May be the only instance of an Ice Age fossil tooth preserved in a UK church. The platelets on the tooth suggest it is a Straight Tusked Elephant rather than Mammoth. You might want to contact the Natural History Museum with news of this. Antony Sutcliffe’s book “On the Track of Ice Age Mammals “published by the Natural History Museum in 1985 has a chapter describing Ice Age fossil finds in historic times and what people then thought they were. Also records their use as ingredients for medicines. It would be interesting to know how the elephant tooth found its way into the church.”
I should have known better (although this is not my specialist area) as I was part of the team that excavated the Ebbsfleet Elephant over the course of almost a year in 2004 with Oxford Archaeology. First of all, a huge molar was disturbed by the digger following which I uncovered one of the tusks which shone a grey-brown in the sun – then began to immediately decay as it had been exposed to the air ! Excavation continued with water guns filled with a weak mixture of PVA to ‘seal’ any finds upon exposure and they were excavated with the help of the Natural History Museum. The elephant was believed to be around c. 500,000 years old and the humans responsible for butchering the animal were identified as Homo Heidelbergensis, according to the lithic (tool) industry associated with the elephant remains.
Wayne Perkins September 2022
More on the Ebbsfleet Elephant here –
The Ebbsfleet elephant
More on the molar here –
Billingsley, J (2020) Charming Calderdale: Traditional Protections for Home & Household. Northern Earth Books, Hebden Bridge UK
Henderson, W (1886) Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England & the Borders.194
Historic England (2022) Church of St Lawrence, Bapchild. Listed Building. Grade: I. List Entry Number:1115459. Date first listed:24-Jan-1967. Statutory Address 1:. CHURCH OF ST LAWRENCE, SCHOOL LANE, BAPCHILD
Hoggard, B (2020) Magical House Protection. Bergahan Books.
Merrifield, R (1987) The Archaeology of Ritual & Magic. BT Batsford Ltd, London.
Mills, A D (1991) Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names. Oxford University Press.
Opie, I & Tatum, M (1989) A Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford University Press.