Incendiary Behaviour: Ritual Building Protection Through Pyro-Technology

Over the last 25 years archaeologists have been recording taper burn marks found on medieval and historic building timbers. The marks are now understood to be the material traces of applied ‘pyro-technology’ – an act intended to protect the building from harm.

A taper burn mark can be identified by its ‘tear drop’ shape – not unlike that of a candle flame. They are usually round at the base and gently narrow to a point, which is the result of the way in which the flame was applied to the timber.

Its characteristic shape is the result of a ‘controlled’ flame having been deliberately applied using a taper. Tapers were a long, thin candle used for lighting fires, whose design was intended to create a steady flame.

It was believed that the marks functioned through the laws of sympathetic magic to inoculate buildings against fire & ward against lightning.

Spatial analysis of taper burn mark assemblages has revealed that concentrations occur predominantly on fireplace lintels as well as around timber door and window frames. In these contexts, they function as apotropaics – marks added to the building’s structure to ward against the unwelcome guest.


Wayne Perkins has been an archaeologist for over 22 years, seven of those spent excavating in France. He is a member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists.

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