Humans seem to have an irresistible urge to make applications to blank surfaces.
The oldest known cave paintings are more than 44,000 years old and include hand stencils and simple shapes, such as triangles, circles, rectangles, lines and dots.
“These marks are symbols or signs,” said Greg Huber, a barn and house historian, “and humans appear to have an innate desire to use symbols.”
Huber of Macungie is an author and owner of the consulting firms Past Perspectives and Eastern Barn Consultants. He spoke Sunday during a virtual presentation on barn hex signs and other symbols, hosted by the Friends of Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site.
The nonprofit organization’s mission is to support the preservation, maintenance and activities of the Union Township property. Activities include monthly presentations on the second Sunday of each month.
No programs were held last year in April and May due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but monthly programming resumed in a virtual format last June.
More than 25 people participated in Sunday’s virtual program, using the Zoom platform.
One of the potential perils of such programming was demonstrated when Huber’s computer microphone connection was lost midway through the presentation. He resumed the program after a pause of about 10 minutes, using a cellphone for sound.
During the program, titled "Manifestations of Man’s Secret World: Rare Rock Cave Art to Barn Decorations and Mystery Marks on Barns in Pennsylvania," Huber explored the reoccurrence of geometric symbols and patterns through the ages.
Symbols can be apotropaic, he said, meaning they supposedly have the power to ward off evil or bad luck.
“The rosette is the most common symbol in the world,” he said, noting it can be found throughout Europe and beyond since the Middle Ages with some examples dating as far back as the Bronze and Iron ages.
Colonists brought the multi-pointed compass-drawn rosette to the Americas, where it was used frequently on the outsides and insides of Pennsylvania’s barns.
Six- and eight-pointed rosettes are often seen painted on the hex signs ornamenting barn exteriors, but they are also found etched or scribed inside, usually on granary doors.
Why they were used or what they signify in that application is not fully understood, Huber said, but rosettes are interpreted as symbols of the sun.
Swirling swastikas or sun swirls, dating to ancient times, are another sun symbol found in exterior barn art.
“What is more important in your life and in my life than the sun?” he asked in an interview prior to the program. “I can’t even begin to emphasize how important it is to human communities.”
It was mistakenly thought that barn stars were not used locally until the Civil War period, Huber said, but that has been disproved.
Stars dating to the 18th century have been identified in the region but are rare since so few barns built before 1790 survive.
Early barns sometimes had recesses under the end gables where circular-cut boards painted with rosettes or other sun symbols were hung.
Rosettes also were used by the Pennsylvania Dutch on gravestones, furniture, baptismal certificates and in other applications.
The diamond, or rhombus, a longstanding fertility symbol, also is found inside barns in southeastern Pennsylvania.
“Diamonds are also found etched inside covered bridges in Lancaster County,” Huber said.
The heart shape is another fairly common mark found on walls inside barns, he said, noting that it was used to evoke goodwill and wellbeing.
Traditional designs were not always used apotropaically, and in some cases were employed decoratively or to make a statement, as seen in graffiti, another art form traced to ancient times and practiced through the ages.
The need to draw, etch or otherwise cover surfaces with images and symbols connects those living today with humans throughout time, Huber said.
“Even children have the innate desire to mark sidewalks with chalk,” he said. “The lesson to be learned is ‘make your mark in life.’”