On many of our projects after we have removed the paint or varnish from ancient beams we are always excited when we reveal original carvings such as dates or carpenter tool marks. Even more exciting is when we find ancient burn marks that are nearly always in the shape of a candle flame, sometimes just one and sometimes a few together. These are more often than not on the oak beam lintel over a fireplace.
How did they get there? What do they mean? Are they deliberate markings or are they because of an accident? What was the candle standing on? We have yet to see any evidence of another lower shelf under the fireplace lintel and why would you put candle, used to provide light in front of an open fire that was already giving out plenty of light?
Candles were scare and not cheap many years ago so you surely wouldn’t waste burning one in front of an area where there was already a good source of light.
These marks are a great find and help to prove the originality of the beam and the age of the property.
The process we use at Beam Clean & Restore will not remove or damage these marks as it is so gentle and chemical free, so what are these marks, was it accidental by a fallen candle or placing a candle flame too close to the beam or did someone put them there deliberately, and if so why?
In-depth research has been carried out using experiments to determine how these burn marks were created and what caused them. Using old candles made from the same animal fats that would have been used hundreds of years ago it was not possible to reproduce these marks.
Research proved that only in exceptional circumstances were these marks caused by candles in accidental situations and that these marks could only have been created by skill and perseverance using a taper or rush light, not a candle. It is therefore considered that the marks are deliberately placed there.
The most common place to find these marks is on the lintel above a fireplace. They can also be found on external walls, around doors and windows and also on the inside of a wooden door.
The burn marks are always flame shaped and can be found in groups or singularly.
These burn marks have been dated back to as early as the 16C.
Suggestions have been made that the marks were intentional and were made to protect the house against fire; fires were considered the work of the devil or witchcraft. Another suggestion is that they are a form of spiritual ritual following the Reformation.
So why are these marks found mainly on the lintel over the fireplace? Around the time of 1560 – 1750, the time when these marking were considered to be most prevalent, the Church was in turmoil and evil, witchcraft and superstition were feared the most. Witches were burned or ducked in water in a vain and cruel attempt to ‘cure’ them of their ‘evil crimes’ and the house was kept with doors and windows firmly closed, not only to keep out thieves but to stop the evil spirits entering. Insides of doors and beams around doors and windows can be found usually with a single mark but these are nowhere near as common place as the ones found on the lintels above the fire.
Fireplaces and chimneys were open to the skies and it was believed that the evil spirits could enter the homes through these openings by altering their form from the devil or a witch into a bird or bat. It is therefore thought that rituals were performed by marking the lintel with these burn marks to ward off and protect against these evil spirits. Other forms of marks such as scratches and initials can also be seen alongside these burn marks, mainly a W or double VV, thought to stand for ‘Virgio Virginum’ Virgin of Virgins. Often the W was upside down in the shape of an M and it has been suggested that the M stood for Maria, another reference to the Virgin Mary.
If you have ever purchased an old oak beam to use in a house renovation or you live in a house that is a few hundred years old – start looking! You never know, you may find these marks above the fireplace or around an original door and you can be sure they were made deliberately, probably at least 300 years ago, to protect the house against evil and witchcraft.
Trouble is if your beams are painted in thick black paint or dark varnish or even modern white paint it will be very difficult to find them. Imagine how great it would be to return the beams to their original appearance, safely and without chemicals, and finding these marks on your fireplace lintel.
Proof of age, originality and a great talking point!