Scorch, Taper or Burn Marks, as they are known, are ritual protection marks, and exist in many historic timber-framed buildings, or timbers within historic stone buildings, and sometimes on timber doors of medieval churches. They are usually found near openings, such as doors, windows or fireplaces, but may also sometimes appear on timber members of internal walls or internal faces of external walls.
They have been made deliberately, sometimes over time, at certain times of the year, ritualistically, by the occupants, or sometimes before the building was even erected in the timber yard, or were already burned onto any timbers from another older building re-used when a new building was constructed.
They are made by charring the wood with a candle or taper, often the gouging out of the charred wood with a tool, and then the rubbing of them with the finger, to form a droplet or tear shape like groove, in a patient ritual.
These marks are a symbolic use of fighting fire with fire, but they are also thought to guard against lightning too, due to fire being a scary and common risk to the many timber built buildings of the historic past.
In the UK, it is thought that these protective marks were ritually burned over years, in some cases, at All Hallows, Christmas, or the feast of Candlemas, when candles held power, and blessed candles were available from churches, and thus used to guard against malevolent forces, in opposition to God.
They are usually found in multiples, but can sometimes be found singularly.
It is also thought that these apotropaic marks may have been burnt into timbers which existed in areas of shadow within rooms, where demonic forms may hide in the darkness.
In the UK, it was noted over time, that oak trees always seem to be attracted to lightning, and a ‘Lightning Oak’, an oak which has been struck by lightning was often seen as magical, with links to Thor, the Norse Thunder God. Often local people would cut away a small piece from the tree, and wear it as a talisman to protect them from evil and bring them luck.
This is also true to Ethiopian folk customs, any tree hit by lightning was seen as magical, and amulets made from the wood, which as in the UK’s past, were thought to protect them from evil and guard their buildings against fire.
Care must be taken when identifying burn or scorch marks on old timber-framed buildings, because sometimes death watch or woodworm insect holes upon the timbers have sometimes been treated with a solution which leaves a dark stain. Also sometimes they have been painted over, so they do not look blackened, but once you know the feeling of them to the finger, they are easily identifiable from their texture from the rest of the wood, as well as their droplet like appearance.
Vincent found burn marks at the following churches in Ethiopia:-
Burn Marks at Mikael Imba Rock-Hewn Church, 8th Century AD, Tigray
Painted out Burn Marks at the Timber Church of Abuna Aregawi, 6th Century AD, Debra Damo
A Series of Burn Marks to a Wall Timber at the Timber Church of Abuna Aregawi,
6th Century AD, Debra Damo
A Burn Mark to a Wall Timber at Yimrahanna Kristos Cave Church, Early 11th Century AD, Lalibela
A Burn Mark to a Door Threshold at Makina Medhane Alam Cave Church, 12th/13th Century AD
Burn Marks to a Door at Beta Giyorgis Rock-Hewn Church, 12th-13th Century AD, Lalibela
Burn Marks to a Carved Pillar Capital at Lideta Maryam Cave Church, 13th Century AD
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