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Monumental Inscriptions

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A Puzzling Headstone

In the August 2015 issue of Oxfordshire Family Historian (Volume 29, No 2) I described the headstone pictured here, which we encountered in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene, Duns Tew.
(Clicking the images will give you a magnified view. Then use your browser's "Back" button to return to this page)

Front FaceRear Face
The most striking feature of the stone is that the centre of the front face has a deep, roughly rectangular recess extending more than half way through the thickness of the stone. What was it for? An initial thought was that it might be the result of vandalism, where someone had tried to obliterate something but surely such a deep recess would be an overkill for that? Whilst much of the inscription is now unreadable, what remains appears to be distributed either side of the recess, suggesting that the recess had been there from the outset. Was it there to hold some tiny icon? Or maybe some larger feature was originally present and the recess was a mortise that had supported it? There was text above the recess so anything it supported could not have extended upwards or this text would have been hidden.

A second strange feature is a design comprising two semicircles, within a rectangle, which is incised on both the front and rear faces. Such a geometric design would be unusual on a modern stone but is totally unexpected on a stone from 1726. On the front of the stone the tops of the semicircles are interrupted by the recess. On the rear the design is complete and simply has a set of initials, W H and a year, 1726 above it. Inscriptions on the rear of headstones are not uncommon at this date, often with initials, a year and a verse or Biblical quotation. It is the style of the design that is so unusual. A further complication in this case is that the parish register for this period has been lost, so can offer no help concerning the person the stone commemorates.

An internet search failed to reveal any similar stone or any explanation. So in the Family Historian article, I speculated about the significance of these features and enquired whether any members had seen anything similar or could offer suggestions as to their significance.

In response I had suggestions emailed to me by three members:-

Janet Ansell (member 3184), suggested the possibility of use as a sundial. However there is no sign of divisions on the arcs to read off the time and the direction in which the arcs curve, would require light to shine from below, needing some form of mirror arrangement, which seems unnecessarily complicated.

Malcolm Russell (member 1805 ), was reminded of a quoin stone in his own property, (pictured here) which had originally been a pivot point for a door from a demolished barn. The actual bearing was an iron insert within a square socket much like the one on the gravestone. This is certainly a possibility. The gravestone was positioned amongst other "high status" stones, immediately to the south of the chancel, which is generally regarded as one of the most prestigious positions in a churchyard. So I think it is unlikely that a re-cycled stone was being used for reasons of economy. However the former use may have had some special significance for the deceased. e.g. Perhaps he was a miller and this was a bearing stone from his mill? Malcolm pointed out the reference in the VCH article on Duns Tew www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol11/pp209-222" describing various buildings, including a water mill, which had once existed at Duns Tew but had been demolished by 1722. Malcolm suggested that the semicircular markings could have been decoration on the stone from an even earlier use. However the presence of the semicircles on both front and back faces of the stone and the way they fit in with what remains of the inscription suggests to me they were contemporary with the inscription rather than being associated with the earlier use. Is it perhaps fanciful to wonder if they were intended to depict the exposed upper half of an undershot water wheel?

Jill Bhar (member 1494) also suggested the possibility of a previous earlier use of the stone with a piece of wood or stone in the recess, which fits in with Malcolm's suggestion.

My thanks to these members. Any further suggestions are still most welcome. Now if only we could prove that "W.H." was a miller . . . .
(From what remains of the inscription the "H" was possibly "HAYNES".)

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