Witches, Carpenters & Masons – what’s in a mark?
As the Halloween season is now upon us with pumpkin knives being frantically sharpened, a wander around your local heritage site, church or historic building on a witch mark hunt could be just the thing to get you into the spirit of Samhain!
Many people living with historic building timbers in their homes will be aware they often have markings carved into them, usually associated with the construction of the building and identified as 'carpenters’ marks'. Similarly marks etched into stonework are often identified as the initials or working symbol of the stone mason. But whats in a mark, and how can these be significant?
Carpenter's marks were used extensively as part of the process of assembling timber framed buildings. The numerical sequence of marks helped the builders to recognise which timbers to join together when laying out the frames which would then be erected. Usually, these marks would be roman numerals. Mason's marks, however, differ and would take the form of a symbol or initial to identify the masons and was part of a system for checking quality of work and ensuring proper payment. Both of these marks are common across Britain and many people will be familiar with them in their own homes.
[Above left - Carpenter’s marks on timber, Above right – Mason’s marks on a stone lintel]
However, not all of the markings in our dwellings can be attributed to the craftsmen, there are also many instances of historic markings for an entirely different reason, that being superstition, fear of witchcraft and protection from evil.
Witch marks, ritual protection symbols or apotropaic items have been found in many historic places, medieval churches, domestic houses, agricultural barns and even caves, including Somerset’s infamous Wookey Hole Cave and surprisingly in Wells Cathedral and Bath Abbey. These markings date back to times when belief in witchcraft and the supernatural was widespread. Magical symbols and ritual objects were a common part of life and many examples have been identified covering a huge period in British history from at least the 16th century and continuing well into the 18th century. Discoveries of dateable items such as Witch Bottles buried beneath hearth stones (often containing items such as pins, human hair and even urine), or Shoes, mummified cats and horse skulls concealed inside walls and chimneys, have been documented.
However, apotropaic carvings or witch markings can be notoriously difficult to date because although the stone or timber may be medieval, for example, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the etchings are. Additionally ritual protection markings are often misidentified as construction marks or historical graffiti and thus get overlooked.
So how can you tell if your property has been historically protected by a previous occupier? A good indicator would be the shape and placement of the carvings. Our superstitious ancestors believed that witches and evil entities almost always entered to building via the most vulnerable points, those being the door ways, windows and chimneys and so the surrounding timbers are the first place to look. Typically, symbols are found on inglenook beams and window frames and there are several key shapes to look out for, the most obvious being the Daisy Wheel or Hexafoil, a compass-drawn circle usually with six petals within it and these can be identified throughout Britain. Groups of hexafoils are often created as conjoined circles and typically incomplete. It is believed they originated as a solar symbol which could dispel darkness.
[Above left – A Daisy wheel carved in timber Above right – Conjoined Hexafoils]
[Above – Marian symbols as double Vs (Left) carved into an inglenook beam and M’s (right) on a stone window]
Another common pattern is the Marian symbol. These markings are associated with the Virgin Mary and the Marian Cult and may appear as an M, an AM representing Ava Maria, or conjoined Vs to form a W, representing the Virgin of Virgins. Because these marks look so obviously like carved initials they are very commonly over looked and mistaken for the etchings of craftsmen or former occupants.
Other frequently mistaken marks are those that represent the Cross, pentagrams, endless knots and triangles representative of the Trinity. Examples may include a combination of any or all of these symbols and are often crudely etched into a beam, lintel or sill, unlike the uniformity of a carpenter’s mark that will be carefully placed near a timber joint, or a mason’s mark that will be neatly created with a chisel.
More recently recognised ritual protection marks that are so often overlooked are taper burn marks in historic timber. These little black pointed marks are commonly misinterpreted as accidental candle burns and many examples are lost due to beams and timbers suffering painting, varnishing or sandblasting by overenthusiastic renovators.
[Clockwise from above left – Taper burn marks on an internal door frame, on a fire surround and on timber oak panelling]
Recent studies have shown that these purposeful markings are to be found all over the timbers of many early houses, and often in places where there is little chance of a candle having been left alone, such as high up in roof timbers, on joists under the floor boards or even on furniture. The very distinctive tear-drop shaped burns have a very specific purpose, that being to protect the dwelling and its occupants from the devastating rages of fire, a very real and destructive threat in times past when building materials were highly flammable and heating, lighting and cooking within the home all had to be achieved with a naked flame.
Historically it wasn’t unusual for timbers from de-constructed buildings to be recycled or reused in other buildings or furniture and so these little charred tear marks may not always point skywards and this is a key point to remember when searching for witch marks in your own home.
If you do come across unusual marks in your home this Halloween, previously unrecorded ritual protection marks can be notified to Historic England and you can read more about his here;
At ArchiWest our Heritage specialists are able to recognise potential apotropaic marks and include findings in our client report. For more information and help with your project get in touch here.
For further reading about historic ritual protection Brian Hoggard’s book ‘Magical House Protection – The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft’ is recommended and can be purchased through his website http://www.apotropaios.co.uk/.
studio@ArchiWest.co.uk - 01934 311017