Timber Marks in the Tower of London

Yesterday (20th January 2016) the Inner Lives team was fortunate enough to be given access to a section of the Tower of London few visitors get to see. Accompanied by Alden Gregory, Curator of Historic Buildings, and James Wright, Senior Archaeologist with Museum of London Archaeology, we were taken into the Queen’s House where an impressive number of ‘ritual’ timber marks have been discovered. We’re hoping that James is kindly going to be writing a guest blog post detailing his finds so I won’t go into too much depth, but just to whet your appetite…

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The ‘Queen’s House’, a timber-framed building of the 1530s/40s, is a bit of a misnomer as it probably had nothing to do with a queen, past or present. We don’t know for certain what this building was being used for at the time the marks were made, but the rooms that contain them were probably all either low-status accommodation, cells for prisoners, or storage rooms.

When James was asked to survey the Queen’s House for graffiti and timber markings, he probably wasn’t expecting his search to be so fruitful. Some of the marks he found were more than likely secular (tradesmen’s or merchants’ markings) but James is fairly confident that no less than 59 of them are ritual – and these are just the ones that have been found!

Of these 59, 54 are burn marks: charred teardrops adorning doorframes and timber posts. You may be thinking that burn marks are hardly evidence of ritual activity; surely they testify more to the careless placement of candles. But as the experimental trials of John Dean and Nick Hill –‘Burn Marks on Buildings: Accidental or Deliberate?’ – indicate, these marks probably couldn’t have been made accidentally; in fact, a lot of time and effort seems to have gone into their making. But why? Were they apotropaic? Were they inoculations against fire? Who made them? And how much belief or emotion was invested in them? Without literary evidence to draw on we can’t know for sure, but the more examples of them we discover, the better chance we have of gaining insight into their original purposes.

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Eager to get a good look at some of these burn marks, the Inner Lives team scrambled to the top of the Queen’s House, ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ at the pretty sunset views over London, and squeezed into the attic rooms where James pointed out some of the more interesting examples. These included one mark that looked to have been in-filled, and two more that appeared to have been cut out. Again, the ‘why’ of this is beyond our grasp – but it didn’t stop us from speculating and, of course, taking lots of photographs.

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Other curious finds at the Queen’s House include an incomplete hexafoil, a couple of ‘VV’ inscriptions, and a spiritual midden – the first, we believe, to have been excavated archaeologically. But I’m sure that James will be giving more details about these in his post. So I’ll end here with a big thank you to James and Alden for a really interesting tour and some fascinating stories about the history and culture of one of England’s most famous sites: the Tower of London.

Reference: Wright, J. 2016., Queen’s House & Bell Tower, Tower of London, London, EC3N – An historic standing building survey. MOLA unpublished report.

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