The mystery of history hangs thick in the air as you walk the corridors of the Albany Convict Gaol, where ghostly residents are said to roam and the walls creak with forgotten stories. The historic gaol opened in 1852 for imperial convicts sent to Albany, before it was transformed into a public prison in 1873. It is easy to imagine the fear felt by the convicts, Aboriginal prisoners or foreign mariners locked behind the walls in small, dark cells. Perhaps that is why one particular cell, known as the Aboriginal and Seamen’s Cell, is filled with apotropaic markings, finely etched into its timber walls. More than 50 circular scratchings in the cell’s timber panel walls have been identified as “hexafoils”, symbols which could indicate the presence of magical practices brought to our shores by early foreign prisoners. The markings are a ritual protection method used to ward off evil spirits. They have been documented by archaeology honours student Lauren Tomlinson, who is completing her dissertation in the archaeology of magic at Perth’s University of Notre Dame. Archaeology of magic is described as the study of folklore and the superstitious aspects of artefacts from the past. Local history co-ordinator Sue Lefroy said carvings in the cells had been recorded in previous cultural assessments. “However, their deeper meaning, up until Lauren’s research, has not been identified or explored as objects of evil aversion,” she said. “An archaeological approach to contextualise apotropaic markings is a first for WA. Its application will help us to understand why, almost 200 years ago, such carvings and symbols were created to ward off potentially harmful or evil influences, shedding new light on lost culture.” Ms Tomlinson, 24, said she made the discovery on a visit to the gaol with her family. “My family is from Albany so I go down to visit quite a lot,” she said. “One day I decided to visit the gaol, I saw the markings on the cell walls and thought to myself, why do I recognise those? “I went back to one of my books on physical evidence of magic in archaeology, found the symbols and made the connection. “This is something big — no one’s discovered this before because most people only recognise the Indigenous markings that are in the cell.” The main symbol Ms Tomlinson discovered during her survey in January is called a hexafoil or wheel of daisy. A hexafoil is a six petal “flower” symbol comprising of a single, endless line which supposedly confused and entrapped evil spirits. “The place would have had a lot of foot traffic over the years of occupation which could account for why there are so many,” she said. “It was a fearsome place, surrounded by strangers in a dark room with only tiny windows of light.” Some of the hexafoil symbols point to evidence of Scandinavian people coming through the cell, Ms Tomlinson said. “It proves people were very superstitious when arriving in these new colonies and settlements carrying their traditions with them,” she said. “It will allow us to see what mindset they were in coming to this new area and because these markings are so abundant in this cell, it is very unique.” According to the Albany Historical Society, the cell was built in 1874 for Aboriginal prisoners, after frequent escapes from the town gaol at Lawley Park. The cell has a number of carvings on the timber including a snake, a lizard, and a kangaroo, believed to be the oldest Aboriginal cell art in Australia. Foreign seamen were also held in this cell, where visitors can find carvings of sailing ships on the walls. Ms Tomlinson said the symbols represented prisoners’ attempts to protect themselves. “Whoever put the symbols in place, you can tell they were scared,” she said. “They are sporadically placed in every corner of the cell. They know there could have been an evil spirit and they might need protection.” Ms Tomlinson is set to complete her survey later this year, with plans to examine other old buildings in regional WA and Perth.