Last Thursday (12th November) I attended an evening lecture hosted by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Martin Higgins, Historic Buildings Officer at Surrey County Council, was speaking about daisy wheels (aka hexafoils) and taper burns, and he put forward some very interesting theories. Firstly a strict distinction was made between ‘superstitious’ or ‘apotropaic’ carvings, and the entirely secular marks made by masons, carpenters, hewers, and merchants; a warning about over-interpretation, which I believe many historians and archaeologists need to heed. The question over whether daisy wheels were apotropaic or simply decorative was considered, a question that can only be answered with a consideration of individual context. Higgins also noted that many daisy wheels in Suffolk are incomplete – and the theory was passed around that perhaps efficacy came more from the act of creating than the finished symbol itself.
Higgins’ consideration of taper burns was also fascinating. There is still heated debate over whether these burn marks were made accidentally or deliberately; Higgins argues convincingly for the latter and I’m inclined to agree. These burn marks, which would have taken roughly half an hour to create, are often found in clusters and in places where accidental burning seems unlikely, e.g. in the middle of a door. Were they there for protection against malevolent forces or against fire, in a vaccine-style ritual (if you burn something a little then it will protect it from further burning)? Again, context is vital. Taper marks on the roof or in the attic may have been to protect against lightning. Surely fear of fire must have motivated the marks in the gunpowder room of the HMS Victory. While marks on a fireplace could equally have been made to protect against fire and to prevent something with evil intent (witches, demons, spirits, etc.) from entering via the chimney.
My very brief summary of Higgins’ fascinating and informative lecture doesn’t do it justice, but I’d like to focus now on one comment he made. He mentioned, quite in passing, that he had once concealed a shoe in his house. As you might imagine, my ears pricked up instantly. Following his talk, I contacted him to find out more and he kindly emailed back, explaining the why, how, and where of it.
When he had his fireplace restored, in his house in Betchworth, Surrey (pictured), a cache of concealed objects was found: a collection of bent pins and a bottle. The bottle was empty but unsealed, so any liquid (e.g. urine, as is commonly found in witch-bottles) could have evaporated. This cache was removed to be recorded properly, but Higgins admits to feeling ‘guilty (should that be nervous?)’ that it isn’t in situ at the moment. He will return it once it’s been recorded.
But from old concealed objects to new: Higgins tells me that when he removed a corner chimney breast in the kitchen, he ‘decided to continue the tradition of concealing shoes in and around chimneys, so, having young children at the time, placed some worn out shoes of [his] eldest child in the blocked stack.’ Why? Because he ‘would enjoy finding old shoes in [his] house, so it was mostly for future generations to think about who might have been living in the house when they were placed there, and who knows it may bring luck to the household’.
Higgins also carved and added new barge boards to the house (pictured), and these included some symbols we’re familiar with: daisy wheels and AMR. However, Higgins included the daisy wheels as decorative features (and for his love of gardening), and the ‘AMR’ doesn’t stand for Ave Maria Regina, as we might have imagined, but are the initials of Higgins’ children. Modern takes on old symbols, and Higgins notes that the ‘whole of this was because the new gable deserved decent barge boards, and why not put a stamp on the building… It could be regarded as just a rather grand form of graffiti’. It makes me wonder whether similar reasons were motivating the carvers of similar symbols generations ago, or whether this simply demonstrates the mutability of meaning. Symbols, objects, and customs can survive centuries – but not without a little adaptation to the meanings, ideas, and emotions behind them.