3799 – Board with protective marks

Physical description:
Large wooden beam with carving on the front. Rough and unfinished wood on the back.
Museum classification:
Height 360 mm length 1190 mm Depth 40 mm

The ebay seller provided the following information:

"This is an original reclaimed dovetailed timber beam dated 1700.

It is a very rare survivor as it retains its original witches marks.  Witches marks usually take the form of circles, lettering or symmetrical patterns that can be found in properties dating from the 1500s to 1700s. They are often mistaken for carpenters marks or old graffiti.  They are in fact symbols designed to warn off witches.  The marks are often found on thresholds of properties, such as door frames, windows or fireplaces. 

This particular example is formed from a single piece of wood.  It retains some of its original iron work in the form of cut nails and bolts.  A coat of wax has been applied to provide a seal for the wood.

This is a local item to suffolk, it comes from a builder who was working on a timber framed building and had to remove it during alterations. Unfortunately I do not know what part of the structure it came from. It either formed part of a larger fireplace mantle or was part of a doorframe, as invariably theses are carved on the thresholds as I am sure you know. I have only come across one such beam before about 10 years ago, as the marks are often dismissed as carpenters marks and are thus discarded. This piece was only probably retained due to the date as opposed to the witches marks which are infinitely more interesting!"

The chest frontal (above) was acquired by the Museum in 2017.  It was removed from a house in Suffolk and was used as a decorative piece.  It is likely that the six-petal designs were protectionist graffiti, guarding the contents from accident, fire and malevolent interference.  These marks are found all over the country in churches, monastic buildings, farm and domestic structures.  They probably originated in England as consecration crosses—when a Bishop consecrated a building he did so by smearing holy water at 12 different points on the inside and outside of the church.  By the 1100s onwards, parishes started to memorialize these consecrations by erecting stone tablets with the daisywheel designs on them.  Perhaps the symbol was a Christogram or another ancient symbol that held special meaning?  By the 1600s they were being inscribed in dwellings, especially above or around liminal places like doorways, fire places, and on furniture.  Good examples of these marks can be seen in Tintagel church (13th or 14th century) and at Rame Church (South Cornwall, c. 1100).


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