APOTROPIC MARKS

These are marks on the fabric of buildings that are meant to protect the building from spiritual evil.  They majority appear to date from the 16th to the 18th century.  In some cases they have been made by the craftsman who constructed the building, in other cases they appear to have been made by the users of the building.  The buildings may be ecclesiastical, domestic or agricultural.  They are often found alongside entrances to a building, doors, windows and chimneys: especially chimneys as these could not be physically blocked.  They are also found in dark unlit spaces, such as stairs to attics or little used store rooms.

A good example in an ecclesiastical building is the Hexafoil, or daisy wheel, in St Peter’s church.

Examples of apotropic marks in a domestic setting have been found in a village house dating to the first half of the 17th century, or earlier.  These consist principally of around 44 taper burn marks found on the bressumer, or beam over the fireplace.  The bressumer is likely to date to the early 17th century. It is probable that the chimney was added to an already existing dwelling.  Some of the marks cross a large split in the timber which probably occurred soon after the timber was put in place.  This would suggest the marks date from shortly after the chimney and bressumer were installed.

The burn marks are found along the whole length of the bressumer but are concentrated at one end. Above this concentration there are some deeply incised marks that also cross a split in the timber and may relate to activity designed to protect the building.  When apotropic marks are found on a bressumer they are often concentrated at one end. In this case the original door to the outside was also located next to this end of the chimney breast.

The incised ‘scratch’ marks were probably made prior to the timber splitting, which tends to happen in the first decade after felling. The marks themselves certainly aren’t what would be considered typical ritual protection marks. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t. There are so many different types of marking, and variations on a theme, that it is often difficult to be certain. [Matt Champion pers.comm. 22/1/2019].

These taper burn marks are quite common on timbers in buildings dating from the 16th or 17th century, but they had been assumed to be accidental. Recent experimental research work has demonstrated that these marks could not have been made accidentally.  The candle, or taper, has to be held at a very specific angle to the timber, the resulting charcoal scraped away, and the process repeated.  The locations of many of these burn marks would support the idea that they were not accidental. 

Why would these taper burn marks be used as apotropic marks?  A candle produces light that dispels darkness; so the candle could easily become associated with the ability to repel darkness or evil.  In the medieval church the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas, was an important occasion, and the candles assumed an important role.  Members of the congregation were expected to bring a candle to be blessed.  It is clear that these `holy candles` were believed to be particularly powerful;  a belief that was support by one of the Candlemas prayers which refers to the devil fleeing when a candle was lit or set up.

Champion, Matthew. 2015. Medieval Graffiti.  The Lost Voices of England’s Churches. London: Ebury Press.

Champion, Matthew. 2018. Fighting fire with fire: taper burn marks. British Archaeology.  159: 36 – 41.

Easton, Timothy. 1999. Ritual Marks on Historic Timber.  Weald and Downland Open Air Museum magazine. Spring: 22-30.    http://www.academia.edu/13353254/RITUAL_MARKS_ON_HISTORIC_TIMBER_SPRING_1999

Easton, Timothy.  2015. Apotropic symbols and other measures for protecting buildings against misfortune.  In:  Hutton, Ronald (ed), Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts.  Ch. 3.  Palgrave Macmillan.

Taper Burns Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

Demon traps, spiritual landmines and the writing on the wall…